Police Break Up Hasidic Gathering in Quebec

Oct. 14, 2020

By JANICE ARNOLD

MONTREAL—Police broke up a large gathering prohibited under COVID public health rules in the Hasidic Tosh community north of Montreal during a Simchat Torah celebration the evening of Oct. 10.

One person was arrested obstructing a police officer and 16 citations of more than $1,500 each for public health violations were issued as a result of the intervention at a synagogue in Kiryas Tosh, an enclave of over 3,000 in the municipality of Boisbriand, in Quebec’s lower Laurentians.

The area is in the “red zone,” the province’s highest alert level, and houses of worship are limited to 25 socially-distanced people at a time.

In response to notification from neighbours, and at the request of the Laurentian public health department, the regional police force of Thérèse-de Blainville, reinforced by the provincial Sureté du Québec, went to the synagogue. They found about 400 people for a festive conclusion of the High Holidays.

According to news reports, the police asked the organizers to have the building vacated. The departures attracted hundreds more community members to the scene on the street, possibly up to 1,000. Many wore masks, but physical distancing was not strictly observed.

The man arrested was later released.

The incident was denounced by the umbrella Council of Hasidic Jews of Quebec. In a statement, the Montreal-based body said it “greatly regrets what happened in Boisbriand. It should not have taken place. These were not the instructions given to the leadership of the community. We ask that the protocols be respected.”

The council had attempted to head off such a gathering earlier in the day, without success, for reasons unclear.

The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs-Quebec also deplored the event on Twitter.

“The Jewish community appeals once again to the Boisbriand community to fully conform to the health directives…Numerous Jewish institutions in Montreal have done everything possible to conform and, in numerous cases, surpassed the directives and recommendations in the fight against COVID. We ask the leaders of the Tosh community to follow our example and see that their members conform to all directives…for the well-being of their community and the greater public.”

At an Oct. 13 press conference, Health Minister Christian Dubé commended the police for how they handled a “delicate” situation.

“I believe that our police did an incredible work” in dispersing people, Dubé said. “It was done correctly and succeeded in avoiding the worst because there may be infections there but it could have been still worse.”

He said it appeared that people from outside Quebec were among those at the gathering.

Premier Francois Legault also lauded the police for how they acted and the citizens who brought the situation to the authorities’ attention.

The entire Tosh community was placed under a month-long quarantine at the beginning of the pandemic in March. The measure was requested by its leaders after an outbreak, which was attributed to members returning from New York, where they had participated in Purim celebrations.

Eventually, 70 community members tested positive, but none required hospitalization.

Meanwhile, users of Facebook in Outremont, home of the majority of Quebec’s Hasidim, are receiving ads sponsored by a group called Démocratie Outremont that “wrongly target, blame and shame” Hasidim for an increase in COVID cases, tweeted Sarah Dorner, who is active in promoting intercultural harmony in the area.

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.