Second COVID Wave Hits Montreal Jewish Community

Oct. 15, 2020

By JANICE ARNOLD

MONTREAL—The surge in COVID in Quebec is affecting the Montreal Jewish community no less seriously than the rest of the population.

The impact of a record number of new cases in the province is clearly seen in Jewish schools. Hebrew Academy is the second day school that has had to close temporarily because of an outbreak of the coronavirus, and Akiva School was added to the rapidly growing list of schools in Quebec that have cases.

Hebrew Academy switched both its elementary and high school to online learning at home until Oct. 19 after “a number” of people at the school tested positive, the administration informed parents.

Hebrew Academy, located in Cote St. Luc, said it took the decision “preventatively” in collaboration with the Montreal public health department, and will reassess the situation after the 14-day shutdown.

After three infected students were found at Akiva, an elementary school in Westmount next door to Congregation Shaar Hashomayim, two classes were sent home to learn remotely for the quarantine period. Head of School Rabbi Eric Grossman told the school community that the source of the outbreak is “directly linked to community spread (not school spread).”

Herzliah High School was the first Jewish school to record positive cases, and had to close on Sept. 17 for two weeks when the number grew to at least 15 students and one teacher. It was the first school in Quebec to have to take that measure.

Other schools that have had confirmed cases are Talmud Torah, Beth Rivkah Academy, Solomon Schechter Academy, and Yechiva Yavné, as well as the Yaldei School for children with special needs.

As of Oct. 10, the independent website covidecolesquebec.org listed 941 schools in the province that had at least one confirmed COVID case since the start of the school year.

There are other indications that the incidence of COVID is rising in Montreal’s Jewish community, which remains under the province’s highest alert until at least Oct. 28. This trend is despite strenuous efforts to adhere to COVID containment regulations, which was especially challenging over the three-week High Holiday period.

A six-storey mural paying tribute to health-care workers during the COVID crisis was inaugurated at the Jewish General Hospital in September, with support from the consular corps in Montreal, including Israel. (CIUSSS West-Central Montreal photo)

Cote St. Luc, a city of 34,000, the majority Jewish, is being red-flagged by the Montreal public health department after new cases went from 45 between Sept. 22-28, to 63 from Sept. 29-Oct. 5, even though it has been probably the most pro-active municipality since the outset of the pandemic.

Citing the many older residents, numerous religious and long-term care institutions, and residential density, Cote St. Luc’s city council declared a state of emergency in March and, in June, was the first jurisdiction in the province to require face coverings in indoor public spaces and to reduce gatherings to 10.

Mayor Mitchell Brownstein is now asking Quebec to permit the city to extend the mask regulation to common areas of apartments and condominiums.

The borough of Outremont currently has the highest per capita number of COVID cases on the island of Montreal, and public health officials say they are working closely with the Hasidic community that lives there to ensure adherence to the rules.

However, the Council of Hasidic Jews of Quebec, which stresses compliance with government guidelines, thinks the uptick in the last few weeks only parallels what is happening in Montreal as a whole and can’t be termed an outbreak.

COVID has been brought under control in the two major Jewish nursing homes. Jewish Eldercare Centre had an outbreak in March and April of over 50 cases.

Maimonides Geriatric Centre, starting in April, would see a third of its 380 residents contract the virus and 39 die from it. It was one of the facilities that the Canadian Armed Forces was sent to this summer to ease the staff shortage.

The personal devastation of COVID is recounted by acclaimed cellist Denis Brott, who continues to recover from a near-fatal bout. His first public performance after 3-1/2 months of rehabilitation was at Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom, where he played the Max Bruch melody on Kol Nidre.

He spoke then for the first time about his ordeal. After returning to Montreal in mid-March from concerts in Europe, Brott, 69, became extremely ill. He spent 45 days in hospital – 32 of them on a ventilator in an induced coma.

He suffered complications involving the kidneys and liver. 

By his release on May 4, he had lost 25 kilos, and could barely stand, let alone walk. He had nightmares and other symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Perhaps worst of all, severe neuropathy in his hands prevented him from playing his instrument.

To get to where he could again perform the beloved Yom Kippur prayer “took resolve I did not know I had,” said the founder and artistic director of the annual Montreal Chamber Music Festival. “…Losing what I love and finding it again has been somewhat miraculous.”

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.