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.”

COVID Outbreak at Montreal Jewish High School Worsens

Sept. 16, 2020 – By JANICE ARNOLD

MONTREAL – All students in five classes at Herzliah High School were sent home to quarantine for 14 days after 11 of them and one staff member tested positive for COVID, the Montreal Gazette reported on Sept. 16.

This is the largest outbreak to date at any of the more than 3,000 schools in Quebec so far.

It is traced to a bar mitzvah held Sept. 6, according to the Gazette’s information. The first student with the virus was identified two days later, shortly followed by a second, following a public health department inquiry.

The public health department held a screening clinic at the school on Sept. 11.

As with the CJR, school officials did not respond to the Gazette’s request for an interview, releasing instead the same general statement previously given to the CJR.

The Gazette did obtain a copy of a letter sent to parents by Herzliah head of school Michelle Toledano, which is quoted: “We are understandably concerned and are conducting our own investigation to determine common factors among the children in this group. We know that some of the students are friends and have contacts outside the school, but we are still investigating whether transmission may have occurred in school.”

Eight of the 11 infected students are in grade 7, two are in two separate grade 8 classes, and one in a grade 10 class. It has not been made public whether the staff member is a teacher.

The quarantined students are learning at home online, a contingency for which Herzliah was prepared.

One student at its elementary Talmud Torah has also been confirmed to have the virus, and is reportedly a sibling of one of the infected Herzliah students.

Under Quebec guidelines, students stay in one class through the day forming their own “bubble.” Face masks and physical distancing are not obligatory in the classroom, only in common areas of the building.

The three initial cases at Talmud Torah and Herzliah were made publicly known on the privately managed website Covid Écoles Québec, which compiles verifiable reports from school parents or staff. As of Sept. 16, 329 schools in the province are listed as having at least one confirmed case.

After the first two Herzliah cases were confirmed by public health, Toledano appeared confident an outbreak could be avoided. In a letter to the school community obtained and posted by covidecolesquebec.org, she wrote that public health officials “informed us that for one of the cases the risk of transmission is weak. For the other, the students of this class must be put in quarantine for 14 days and learn online…”

COVID Cases Confirmed at Montreal Jewish School

Sept. 14, 2020 – By JANICE ARNOLD

MONTREAL – Less than two weeks after opening, Talmud Torah and Herzliah High School are contending with three confirmed cases of COVID, the first Montreal Jewish day schools known to be affected by the virus.

Two positive cases at Herzliah were listed on the privately run website covidecolesquebec.com on Sept. 7, and one case at its elementary Talmud Torah on Sept. 10.

The school issued the following statement to CJR: “As one of the many schools in Quebec with COVID-19 cases, Azrieli Schools Talmud Torah/Herzliah is working in close collaboration with Quebec Public Health and following their directives to manage the situation.

“We are in constant communication with all our stakeholders and continue to stress the critical importance of appropriate health and safety measures to contain the spread of the virus, including hand hygiene, physical distancing and mask wearing,” the statement continued.

“We remain committed to delivering high quality education while ensuring the health and safety of our students, teachers, staff and families.”

Brigitte Fortin, the school’s director of strategic marketing and communication, did not respond to further questions from CJR.

It is not known whether the three cases are students or staff, or whether anyone other than those who have tested positive has had to go into isolation.

Talmud Torah has about 200 students and Herzliah 450. Both began the school year on Aug. 27.

Herzliah, which is located in a new building opened two years ago, is on the Jewish Community Campus, the seat of Federation CJA and its affiliates. The high school is the campus’s southern anchor and is physically connected to the Sylvan Adams YM-YWHA by an enclosed passageway.

The Y has been closed since March and its projected reopening is Sept. 30.

Talmud Torah remains in the building vacated by Herzliah, a block away.

The Quebec government plan requires all students in grades 5 and up to wear face coverings while in common areas of the school, but masks in the classroom or for younger children is optional.

Schools can recommend mask wearing beyond the government requirements, as  Jewish schools are doing, but they do not have the legal authority to impose it, Education Minister Jean-Francois Roberge has said.

According to information on the Santé Québec website, when a case is confirmed at a school, all staff, students and parents are to be notified. Public health authorities will determine, with the administration, what “close contacts” the affected person has had at the school. If the risk to others is deemed to be high enough, those contacts will have to go into isolation for 14 days as well.

Covid Écoles Québec was created by Montreal IT specialist and parent Olivier Drouin after the government initially refused to make publicly available data on COVID cases in schools.

The government subsequently did make such information available on the Santé Québec site, but its running tally of affected schools lagged well behind Drouin’s and, on Sept. 10, the government  took down the web page – temporarily, it’s been stated – to make adjustments to the data collection system.

(Talmud Torah and Herzliah never appeared on the official list, which was far shorter than the unofficial one and, for reasons unexplained, from which English schools were mostly missing.)

As of Sept. 11, covidecolesquebec.com had compiled 226 schools with at least one confirmed case of COVID since Sept. 1 based on verified reports from parents or staff. There are approximately 3,100 schools in the province from pre-schools to adult training centres that qualify for the count.