Pandemic Has Federation Pivoting on Priorities, AGM Hears

Sept. 29, 2020 – By JANICE ARNOLD

MONTREAL—Thousands in the Montreal Jewish community have become ill with COVID, and “far too many have not survived.”

That grim observation by Federation CJA president Gail Adelson-Marcovitz set the sombre tone for the organization’s 103rd annual general meeting, livestreamed from its headquarters on Sept. 24.

Gail Adelson-Marcovitz
Gail Adelson-Marcovitz

In her report, Adelson-Marcovitz signaled that the pandemic has brought into stark relief the necessity to reassess the community’s priorities and direct resources to where they are most needed.

These have been identified by the Federation as meeting the immediate needs of those most severely affected by the pandemic, both those community members already recognized as vulnerable, and others who have suddenly found themselves struggling financially or facing domestic problems, as well as sustaining community institutions and the quality of Jewish life.

“All non-essential costs are being cut to ensure everyone’s survival,” Adelson-Marcovitz said, and that’s included “a dramatically reduced staff.”

This belt-tightening was being set in motion before the pandemic was declared, and has since accelerated, she said.

The Federation wants the input of the community-at-large in this process and is circulating a survey on critical needs, completed anonymously.

Adelson-Marcovitz said the goal is to “emerge a leaner and stronger community.”

Federation CEO Yair Szlak said the organization is moving away from automatic support for “legacy” agencies to “a funding model based on outcomes,” meaning funding will be based on measurable results.

Since the pandemic, the money going to Federation’s dozen agencies has been determined on a month-by-month basis, rather than an annual allocation.

Staff was cut by 30 percent in April and those remaining have taken salary cuts, he said.

The Federation is also re-evaluating its role, with a view to transitioning to “convener and collaborator rather than central command control,” said Szlak.

Pre-pandemic priorities of bolstering Jewish identity and community security are moving forward. Szlak said that $5.5 million raised during last year’s Combined Jewish Appeal will help pay for enhanced security at 34 synagogues, schools and other institutions, a total of over 40 buildings. More than 100 volunteers have been trained to served as “the eyes and ears” at those places, he said.

Jewish Identity Montreal has been created, integrating the Bronfman Jewish Education Centre and various programs, and a mobile application called JLife will soon be launched to provide a “concierge system to the Jewish world,” Szlak said.

In July, Federation kicked off a two-year campaign to raise $100 million in lieu of the usual annual CJA drive. Treasurer Serge Levy reported that while revenue from all sources for the fiscal year ending March 31 was down $7 million, for a total of approximately $50 million, the organization is in “a strong and stable financial position.”

Harvey Levenson

The meeting did have its lighter moments. Longtime volunteer and philanthropist Harvey Levenson was treated to a tribute video in which he was good-naturedly ribbed for everything from his love of scotch to his lack of fashion sense.

Levenson, who has been associated with Federation since the 1970s, received the Samuel Bronfman Medal, the organization’s highest honour. It was presented by Samuel Bronfman’s grandson, Stephen Bronfman.

In his acceptance speech, Levenson, currently chair of the Jewish General Hospital Foundation, said COVID has “completely altered our perception of what is important in the community…Who could have believed a pandemic would make the community come together in such a cohesive manner. We must have the courage and patience to continue on this road.”

Adelson-Marcovitz is completing the first year of her two-year term. The slate of board of directors for 2020-2021 was approved by online vote, and sees Joel Segal become first vice-president, traditionally the post before the presidency.

Quebec Cuts Synagogue Attendance to 25 Due to COVID Surge

Sept. 24, 2020 – By JANICE ARNOLD

MONTREAL – Attendance at Kol Nidrei and Yom Kippur services will be much smaller than even the reduced level planned by synagogues after the Quebec government raised the COVID alert level for the city.

Hours before Rosh Hashanah ended on Sept. 20, Health Minister Christian Dubé announced that the island of Montreal would be designated “orange,” the second-highest precaution under the province’s colour-coded system.

For houses of worship, that means a maximum of 25 people indoors and outdoors, slashed from the previous socially-distanced 250.

The great majority of Montreal congregations are Orthodox, and do not have the option of using digital technology during the holidays.

Mainstream Orthodox synagogues had already kept the number of worshipers at any one time to below the limit by holding Rosh Hashanah services both indoors and outside, often multiple times and for shorter durations. Children were even barred at some synagogues.

Rabbi Reuben Poupko

Rabbi Reuben Poupko of Beth Israel Beth Aaron Congregation in Cote Saint-Luc told the CJR that Yom Kippur services there will be further dispersed to comply with the new cutoff of 25.

However, he finds it “deeply disturbing” that houses of worship are subject to the same restrictions as any public gathering when movie theatres can still admit up to 250 people and bars remain open with only slightly reduced hours.

“The synagogues have gone above and beyond the regulations to ensure a safe environment, which took many hours of planning. We have doubled and even tripled the prescribed measures, done everything possible, with the advice of medical experts,’’ said Poupko, co-chair of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs-Quebec.

“I’m not saying this is an infringement on freedom of religion, but its exercise is protected, whereas going to a bar or a movie is not a right.”

At his shul, only 120 people were permitted in the 750-seat sanctuary and 150 in a tent outdoors that has a capacity of 800.

Similarly, at Congregation Shaar Hashomayim in Westmount, Montreal’s largest synagogue, only a tenth of the nearly 2,000-seat sanctuary was occupied.

And though it is not mandatory once people are seated, the synagogues require masks to be worn at all times – indoors and out.

Stricter measures were not a complete surprise. Since late August, the daily increase in confirmed COVID cases in the province has risen to levels not seen since May.

Houses of worship, which were closed in March, were allowed on June 22 to reopen with a maximum of 50 people, which was increased to 250 on Aug. 3.

Most, however, either held services outdoors or with very limited numbers indoors, up to Rosh Hashanah.

Montreal public health director Dr. Mylène Drouin said last week that she had met with Jewish community leaders to urge adherence to the protocols over the holidays.

On Sept.17, a day before erev Rosh Hashanah, Federation CJA sent out an “Update for the High Holidays” outlining “recommendations’’ to the community from public health authorities. These included limiting indoor events to 50, whether in synagogues or community or rented halls, and requesting that people over 70 not attend.

“Although implementing these recommendations requires an adjustment in our plans, we must acknowledge that the virus is still among us, and that we must do everything we can to protect the health and well-being of our neighbours, family and friends, as well as ourselves,” stated Federation president Gail Adelson-Marcovitz.

One synagogue did cancel its Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services for the first time in its 56-year history. Congregation Beth Tikvah, a large Orthodox synagogue in Dollard-des-Ormeaux on the West Island, had planned to have indoor and outdoor services.

But Rabbi Mark Fishman decided even this was too risky. He posted on Beth Tikvah’s Facebook page: “The upswing is empirically significant and growing in the Jewish community necessitating the closure of a major Jewish school and creating an atmosphere of anxiety and fear amongst parents in all the other schools, including HFS (its affiliated Hebrew Foundation School).

“The upswing in cases in the Jewish community once again has become the focus of the media and is putting the reputation of our community at risk.”

Herzliah High School was closed on Sept. 17 for two weeks at the behest of the public health department. At least 15 students and one staff member tested positive for COVID, an outbreak attributed to community transmission, likely a bar mitzvah.

In making the decision, authorities also noted an uptick of less than five to 11 cases the previous week in Cote Saint-Luc, where many from the school live or have contacts.

The suburb, which is majority Jewish, is making municipal property such as parks and parking lots available to congregations or groups of individuals for outdoor holiday services.

Herzliah was the first school in Quebec to close, but a second in Quebec City has since been shuttered.

Ultra-Orthodox leaders are also imploring members to adhere strictly to government rules. The Jewish Community Council of Montreal (Vaad Ha’ir) has sent out advisories.

Rabbi Yisroel Bernath, director of the NDG Chabad Centre, is pointing to his own example to drive the message home. He contracted COVID and, although relatively young, was “out of commission for six weeks.”