Jewish Community Critical of Quebec’s Rejection of Hanukkah Gatherings

Nov. 24, 2020

By JANICE ARNOLD

MONTREAL – Community leaders say it is unfair that the Quebec government is denying Jews the right to celebrate Hanukkah in the same manner as has been granted to those who observe Christmas under new pandemic rules.

Many in the community find it galling that a government that places such a high value on secularism appears to be privileging Christian tradition in its relaxation of the ban on private gatherings.

When asked by the media about the decision, Premier Francois Legault replied that the lifting of the prohibition on gatherings during four days around Christmas will not be similarly applied to the holidays of other faiths. The eight-day festival of Hankukah begins December 10th.

Rabbi Reuben Poupko, co-chair of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs-Quebec, said Jews should be allowed to get together for the first four days of Hanukkah, observing the same rules that have been set for Christmas.

Rabbi Poupko montreal
Rabbi Poupko

“It is bewildering that the government would prioritize the holiday of one faith community over the others,” Rabbi Poupko said. “I think equality and common sense would demand that every religious community in Quebec be treated fairly and a similar indulgence be extended to each of them.”

Rabbi Poupko, spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Israel Beth Aaron, noted the government did not show any flexibility during the High Holidays. The Jewish community did not ask for any, and it abided by the rules, he said.

Legault, along with Health Minister Christian Dubé and the province’s public health director, Dr. Horacio Arruda, announced on Nov. 19 that Quebecers will be allowed to gather at home in groups of up to 10 people from Dec. 24-27.

But the premier asked that they enter a “moral contract” under which they minimize their physical contact with anyone outside their household for one week before and one week after that period. Although 14 days is the standard quarantine length, public health officials said symptoms of COVID typically appear five to seven days after infection.

Schools are to close two days before they were scheduled to do so, and the government is asking employers to allow personnel to work at home where possible to enable them to comply with the two weeklong isolation periods.

Elementary schools will reopen on Jan. 4 as planned, but high school students will not return to class until Jan. 11 because coronavirus transmission in this age group is higher, authorities say.

This suspension of the ban on private gatherings is contingent on no spike in cases occurring beforehand. The province is seeing an average of close to 1,200 new COVID cases daily, higher than in the first wave.

B’nai Brith Canada said the government should have consulted the Jewish community and other minority religious groups when establishing pandemic rules that impact their practices.

“The Quebec government must take the needs of minority communities, including the Jewish community, into consideration and work pro-actively with these communities prior to the lifting or imposition of unilateral COVID restrictions. There must be no favouritism. The premier must be the premier of all Quebecers,” stated Toronto-based B’nai Brith CEO Michael Mostyn.

Since the beginning of October when the Montreal region entered a partial lockdown, later expanded to much of the province, the rule has been that no one can enter a household who does not live there, with a few exceptions like elder care or tradespeople.

Gatherings outside, such as in a backyard, are also prohibited. That ban has been extended to Jan. 11, at least.

Rulebreakers may face a fine of $1,500 per person.

Previously, the limit had been six people after Montreal went orange under the province’s colour-coded alert system on Sept. 20. 

Houses of worship are permitted to have 25 people inside at a time.

Legault said a “concentration” of time was necessary to make an easing feasible, and the days chosen represent what most Quebecers want. Public health officials added that the days from Dec. 24 to 27 also are in the middle of the school break and most workplace shutdowns.

“We are in a critical situation,” Legault said at the Nov. 19 press conference. “We can permit gatherings during four days only and we say that the majority of Quebecers would be happy that those four days be at Christmas.”

Letter to the Editor: Bill 21 Mocks Canada’s Democracy

November 9, 2020

Dear Editor:

Re: “Quebec’s Secularism Law Finally Goes to Court, Nov. 4, 2020”

Quebec’s trouble with Bill 21—the “Secularism Law”—provides an ample demonstration about why ‘Notwithstanding’ clauses are overtly dangerous to parliamentary democracies. For one thing, the clauses ultimately cater to selfish provincial Premiers looking to steamroll unpopular legislation for purely selfish motives in contravention of human and Charter rights. Consider Quebec Premier Francois Legault’s justification for the law: it prevents feuding over “reasonable accommodation practices” in the public arena. Perhaps the apparent discomfort over religious accommodations has to do with the fact that Quebec, a largely Roman Catholic Christian society, is uncomfortable with providing accommodation for neighboring religions. If this is true, it bears stating that the Church hosts many races, cultures, and ethnicities, laity and ordained.

Quebeckers remember the power the Church once held in previous centuries. But the atheistic practices of Mr. Legault and his government should not be used to silence religious expression in the public arena, hence the Constitutional quandaries. The unpopular notwithstanding clauses prove that democracy, even in Canada, is a relative term.

Sincerely,
Christopher-Michael Mansour
Barrie, ON 

Quebec’s Secularism Law Finally Goes to Court

Nov. 4, 2020

By JANICE ARNOLD

MONTREAL—The long awaited court challenge to Quebec’s controversial secularism law got underway in Montreal’s Palais de Justice Nov. 2 with a young Muslim woman who wears a hijab testifying that her plans to teach in the public system have been dashed, making her feel excluded and inferior.

Bill 21, which became law in June 2019, prohibits public employees deemed to represent state authority from displaying religious symbols while on the job. These include police officers, judges, Crown prosecutors and other government lawyers, prison guards and – most widely questioned – teachers and principals in public elementary and high schools.

Ichrak Nourel Hak, the first witness at the trial, which is expected to last several weeks, had just graduated from the University of Montreal and was hoping to begin her career in a public school when the legislation came into effect. She is now teaching in the private sector, which is not subject to the law. That includes Jewish day schools.

The trial, held in Quebec Superior Court, combines four separate lawsuits against Bill 21, officially entitled “An Act Respecting the Laicity of the State.”

It was high on the agenda of the Coalition Avenir Québec which was elected with a solid majority in October 2018. The new government quickly shepherded it through the legislative process, despite sustained outcry from minority and human rights groups, legal experts, and the opposition Liberal Party.

Premier Francois Legault described the bill as a “moderate” resolution of the acrimonious debate over “reasonable accommodation” of religious practices in the public sphere. Polls have shown that a majority of Quebecers agree with him.

All four lawsuits seek the law’s annulment on constitutional grounds but will offer differing legal arguments on why it violates fundamental rights. These have to be complex because the law includes the constitutional notwithstanding clause, which allows the government to override guarantees of religious liberty and equality, including between men and women, under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

All of the complainants charge that the law is discriminatory against those whose religious belief requires them to wear such symbols. In practical terms, the greatest impact is on Muslim women.

The law does not specifically name what constitutes a religious symbol but the minister responsible has said it should be commonly understood to mean headwear or jewelry. The law applies to all religions, not only minorities.

Public employees who wore such symbols before the law was adopted are “grandfathered,” but only as long as they stay in the same job description.

Hak is the lead plaintiff for the first lawsuit, launched by the National Council of Canadian Muslims and Canadian Civil Liberties Union (CCLU). The others were filed by the English Montreal School Board; the Fédération autonome de l’enseignement, a teachers’ union; and three teachers – two Muslim, one Roman Catholic who wear religious symbols – who are backed by an interfaith and intercultural coalition.

Gregory Bordan, lawyer for the three teachers and an observant Jew, will argue that the relevant rights were entrenched long before the 1982 Canadian constitution, back even to Confederation in 1867.

Whatever the decision, experts believe it will be appealed and, eventually, taken to the Supreme Court of Canada – a process that could take years.

Last year, a Superior Court judge rejected a request by the Muslim council and CCLU for an injunction against parts of the law with the most direct affect on individuals until their case goes to trial. That decision was upheld by the Quebec Court of Appeal in December.

In the current trial, the court did grant intervener status to a pro-secularist group that believes the law does not go far enough.

In the debate before the federal election last October, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Ottawa might intervene in the court challenge, but that has not happened.

During public hearings in the spring of 2019, the Lord Reading Law Society vigorously opposed the bill saying it would create a “state religion” that imposes neutrality and deprive individuals of their fundamental rights and freedoms.

This association of Jewish lawyers believes the bill contravenes the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and 1976 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Canada is a party.

The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs-Quebec termed the bill “a disproportionate attack” on basic rights, including equality of opportunity for employment, and urged that, at the minimum, teachers not be subject to it.

It also found the bill’s wording ambiguous, leaving too much discretion in the hands of administrators of public institutions in how it is applied.

B’nai Brith Canada urged the entire law be scrapped, saying it “contributes to the divisions that already exist in Quebec society” and “advocates a militant form of laicity to the detriment of religious individuals and communities that cannot be justified.”

The organization feared that hateful acts against minorities would increase.

Families Protest Possible Admission of COVID Patients to Nursing Homes

Oct. 28, 2020

By JANICE ARNOLD

MONTREAL— Families of residents of the long-term care institutions Maimonides Geriatric Centre and Jewish Eldercare Centre, which were hard-hit by COVID this spring and summer, are pleading with health officials to halt a plan to admit outside patients with the virus to recuperate in those facilities.

Jewish Edlercare

“My initial reaction was, ‘What are they thinking?’” Helen Adam, president of the users’ committee at Maimonides, told the CJR. At the outbreak’s worst, one-third of Maimonides’s 380 residents were infected and 39 would die, in addition to the staff members who tested positive. It took reinforcement by members of the Canadian Armed Forces and then the Red Cross to get the situation under control.

Eldercare had an even more difficult time from the outset of the pandemic in March, and lost more residents.

On Oct. 19, CIUSSS West-Central Montreal, the government health agency that administers Maimonides and Eldercare, informed families that there were no longer any COVID cases among residents and that the “hot zones” at both sites would, if necessary, accommodate certain people with the virus who live in the geographic territory served by the CIUSSS.

The email, signed by Barbra Gold, director of the CIUSSS’s Support Program for the Autonomy of Seniors, states that these beds would be for “COVID-positive patients who are medically stable (do not require hospitalization) but require a greater level of care than what is being offered at their current locations, such as private seniors’ residences, intermediate resources or those recovered in hospital who are not strong enough to go home.”

To date, no such transfers have been made and Gold noted that “every effort” is being made to keep such patients where they are. She added, “We are confident that this approach will not compromise the health and well-being of our residents and is in the best interest of the community we serve.”

Adam said families are flabbergasted that after waging such a lengthy battle to contain the virus – which included stopping visits for months and moving residents to different rooms and makeshift spaces to separate the infected from those who were not – the two institutions are now being opened to ill people from the community.

At Maimonides, the hot zone is located in part of the uppermost seventh floor. Adam said she is fearful that staff will inevitably move to other areas of the building despite the best intentions.

“I think Quebec has gone out of its mind. They try one thing one week and another the next. Now it looks like they are setting us up as an adjunct to the hospitals. People are so scared and confused,” said Adam.

Asked by the CJR to respond, the CIUSSS emailed a statement that those with COVID will be moved “only as a last resort” and with extra precautions.

“If and when any COVID-positive individuals arrive at the facility, they will not come into contact with uninfected residents. They will be put into designated hot zones that are separated by permanent walls from the other residents and the other units,” it said.

“They and the staff who care for them will also use designated elevators that will be unavailable to other residents and personnel. As well, they will receive care from dedicated members of the staff—in other words, the COVID-positive person or their health care provider should not have any contact with the other residents, caregivers or health care teams at Maimonides or Jewish Eldercare.”

West-Central Montreal adds that, “like every CIUSSS throughout the province, we are required to provide residents in our area with emergency spaces in a non-traditional site, such as a long-term care centre.”

This is not reassuring to Maimonides resident Beverly Spanier. The retired high school teacher is afraid of another COVID outbreak and has little confidence in the institution’s ability to deal with it.

“This is supposed to be our home, not a hospital,” she said, still traumatized by the upheaval that took place earlier this year. “We’ve already been through hell. I don’t want to live in a war zone again.”

In a letter to Premier Francois Legault, the users’ committee says a “highly vulnerable population” is being put at risk and suggests an alternative. “There are many virtually empty hotels, who would probably welcome the work. Why not use them?

“We appeal to you M. Legault to rethink this directive.”

The committee has also reached out to the Conseil pour la protection des malades, a group defending the rights of users of the health care system.

Adam’s mother, who lived for six years at Maimonides, died in May, but not of COVID. Adam thinks many residents’ passing, including her mother’s, was due to the loneliness and stress caused by the pandemic restrictions. She did not see her mother in person from mid-March until just before her death when she was allowed to visit on compassionate grounds.

She does not want that to happen again to any other residents or their relatives.

By the official count, more than 6,100 people in Quebec have died of COVID, the great majority of them residents of nursing homes or seniors’ facilities.

Sukkot Will be Very Different With Montreal on High COVID Alert

Police Visits of Synagogues Were ‘Respectful’, Jewish Schools Report More COVID Cases

Oct. 2, 2020

By JANICE ARNOLD

MONTREAL— There will be no sukkah-hopping in Montreal this year as the city and surrounding region began a 28-day partial lockdown on Oct. 1 in an attempt to stem a rapid increase in new COVID cases.

Having visitors at one’s home, whether indoors or out, is prohibited during this period of the province’s highest alert, colour-coded red, in force until Oct. 28.

This means participation in any Sukkot celebrations is limited to those residing at that address. No guests allowed.

Police have been granted extra powers to enforce the law. While they are not permitted to make random checks, they can call at homes where they have reason to believe a violation is taking place, Premier François Legault said.

If the occupant does not provide access, police can obtain a “remote warrant” quickly to enter the premises.

Simchat Torah festivities will also be curtailed, as synagogues – as with all houses of worship – continuing with permission to admit a maximum of 25 people at a time.

Celebrations cannot be held in outdoor public spaces, like parks, either, as social gatherings there are banned as well. Those residing in the red zone are also dissuaded from moving activities to an “orange” zone, the alert level just below red – the Laurentians, for example.

Montreal was designated “orange” on Sept. 20, just as Rosh Hashanah was concluding, meaning synagogues were suddenly subject to the 25-person limit, slashed from the socially-distanced 250 that had been in place since Aug. 3 for all houses of worship.

Some synagogues cancelled in-person Yom Kippur services entirely, including Montreal’s largest, Congregation Shaar Hashomayim, which provided members with a guide to observance at home, a variety of pre-recorded online offerings, and a livestreamed Neilah ceremony. Most Montreal synagogues are Orthodox and could not use technology during the holy days.

Rabbi Poupko

Rabbi Reuben Poupko, co-chair of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs-Quebec and spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Israel Beth Aaron, said the community worked with the police before the holidays to ensure they would comply with the rules.

The 25-person limit, of which he had been critical, is more flexible than initially understood, Rabbi Poupko said. More than one group of up to 25 at one time is possible if synagogues have rooms with a separate and exclusive access to the street, he explained. Curtains, he added, cannot be barriers.

Large tents have also extended capacity. Weddings and funerals, wherever they take place, must also keep to the 25 threshold. (Reception halls are closed during these 28 days.)

This co-operation worked well, Rabbi Poupko told the CJR, and several synagogues in Cote St. Luc, Hampstead and Outremont were visited by police on Yom Kippur, but in a “respectful and dignified” manner.

“From everyone I’ve spoken to, the experience was very positive,” he said.

Rabbi Poupko rejected a claim by Berel Solomon, in a video posted online, that Solomon’s shul, the Beth Chabad Cote St. Luc, was “raided” by police near the end of services, and worshippers were “forced to disband” and chased on the street by police cruisers.

Solomon said all the guidelines were followed, and “no explanation” was given by police for the intervention. He claims at least seven other synagogues were “raided,” and deplored that, since the start of the pandemic, the Jewish community has been subject to “unprecedented harassment by the media and police.”

Rabbi Poupko would not comment publicly on the specifics of this incident, but said Solomon’s characterizations do not align with other evidence.

Meanwhile, four more Jewish day schools have reported at least one case of COVID among students or staff, although none have closed. The latest is Beth Rivkah Academy for girls, which informed parents that two students who are sisters tested positive and, as a result, all students in a grade 3 and a grade 5 class were sent home.

Earlier, Solomon Schechter Academy, an elementary school, reported a case among an unidentified staff member, but judged the risk of transmission “very low” as that person always wore a mask.

Yechiva Yavné told parents a janitor’s positive test also posed little risk to students because he did not have contact with them.

Similarly, Hebrew Academy informed its community that an infected “individual” in its high school “poses a minimal risk to students and faculty.” Parents were asked to monitor any symptoms exhibited by their children.

Additionally, the Yaldei School for children with special needs identified one case.

All schools are acting in co-operation with the Montreal public health department.

Herzliah High School, the first Jewish school affected by the virus, along with its elementary Talmud Torah, is scheduled to reopen Oct. 5 after a two-week closure necessitated by a significant outbreak among students.

As of Oct. 1, covidecolesquebec.org, which crowdsources and verifies information from parents, schools and others, listed 642 schools in the province that have had at least one confirmed case since the start of the academic year.

Montreal Jewish Schools Say They’re Ready

Aug. 27, 2020 – By JANICE ARNOLD

MONTREAL—Jewish day school officials here say they have put in place all of the measures required under Quebec’s COVID back-to-school plan, and even exceeded them – but only within the limits of the law.

In an online discussion Aug. 25 organized by the Communaute Sepharade Unifiee du Quebec as part of the annual Festival Sefarad de Montreal, officials offered assurances that their schools are ready to provide a safe environment for students and staff when they open after being closed since mid-March.

The schools are members of the Association of Jewish Day Schools (AJDS), an independent body funded by member schools.

A key point of divergence between some of the Jewish schools and the government’s plan, unveiled on Aug. 10, was the wearing of masks. The plan stipulates that masks must be worn by students in grade 5 and up at all times in the school’s common areas, such as corridors. Wearing them in the classroom, however, is optional.

Some schools had wanted to make masks obligatory in the classroom or for younger children as well, as a few non-Jewish private schools in Montreal said they would. In reaction, the government was firm: That neither private nor public schools have the legal authority to impose measures beyond the public health directives.

The AJDS-affiliated schools, which open as early as Aug. 27, are now “strongly recommending” that students cover their faces while in class.

The discussion, moderated by journalist Elias Levy and conducted in French, heard that some schools have also implemented such extra precautions as Plexiglas shields between desks and air purifiers in classrooms. At least one school will be doing temperature checks.

The Quebec plan does not require social distancing in the classroom. Students in each class are expected to be a “bubble”’ that stays together, with teachers moving between classrooms.

Connecting to the Zoom conference were: AJDS executive director Sidney Benudiz; Lucienne Azoulay, director of Academie Yechiva Yavne; Laura Segall, Hebrew Academy’s head of school; Jennifer Benoualid, principal of Solomon Schechter Academy; Alexandra Obadia, president of Talmud Torah/Herzliah High School; and Esther Krauze, president of Ecole Maimonide.

Another AJDS affiliate, Jewish People’s and Peretz Schools/Bialik High School, which did not take part in the panel, had to retract a message it sent to parents that all students from kindergarten and up would be required to wear masks in class after the government made clear that no school could make such a decision.

Under the province’s plan, all students must go to school fulltime this fall, at least up to grade 9. For the two senior years, schools may opt for a combination of in-school and distance learning, as long as students are in class at least 50 per cent of the time.

The sole exemption is for medical reasons, either the child’s or a member of their household, and that must be certified by a doctor according to strict criteria the government has defined. A group of Quebec parents who want the choice of online learning extended to all students has launched a legal challenge to the government, led by constitutional lawyer Julius Grey.

About 150 doctors and scientists with school-aged kids have also issued an open letter to Premier Francois Legault criticizing the plan as inadequate to protect against the spread of the coronavirus, and urging masks and social distancing in class.

The government has not yielded to this criticism, insisting its plan meets the current advice of health and educational experts, but is open to modification if the situation changes. On Aug. 25, Health Minister Christian Dube described COVID as under control in the province, which now has an average of 80 new cases confirmed daily.

The panelists acknowledged considerable concern exists among their schools’ parents, but the number that have secured exemptions for their children is relatively small.

Benoualid said Solomon Schechter, which is has elementary grades only, has 10 out of an enrolment of 450, while Obadia said Talmud Torah/Herzliah, which has 650 students, has 20 that are exempted.

All of the officials affirmed that their schools are well prepared to provide a full education online to these students, as well as any others who may have to stay home for an extended period, citing the experience they gained this spring.

Benudiz noted that the member schools, under AJDS’s guidance, rallied when they were ordered to close in March to develop distance learning platforms, and quickly put them in place. This combination of real-time instruction by teachers and online materials available proved to be successful, said Benudiz, who applauded the co-operation that continues among the schools.

The schools have now installed cameras in classrooms that will enable students at home to follow along with their peers and even interact.

The schools have closed their cafeterias, and lunches will be eaten in the classroom. The Orthodox schools are using the cafeterias and other repurposed spaces for socially-distanced prayers.

The panelists were definite that their schools would be able to cope well should they have to shut down again due to a second wave of COVID, saying they could pivot within 24 hours to remote instruction.

The other AJDS members are: Akiva School and Hebrew Foundation School, both elementary; and Beth Jacob School, which has elementary and secondary levels.

* A previous version of this story stated that the Association of Jewish Day Schools (AJDS) is a Federation CJA agency. In fact, it is an independent body funded by member schools. The CJR regrets the error.