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.”

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.

A Soccer Mom’s Memoir (Sort Of)

Oct. 6, 2020

By SUSAN MINUK

The Good Stripper: A Soccer Mom’s Memoir of Lies, Loss And Lapdances (Sutherland House Books) offers readers a poignant and salacious story rife with lessons of trauma, resilience, strength and hope.

The Good Stripper

This is no ordinary Jewish suburban soccer mom’s story.

At the outset, we meet author Marci Warhaft as a doting mother of two young sons who finds herself taking it all off in front of paying customers.

Warhaft swiftly introduces readers to Cassidy, her stripper persona.

 “‘Gentlemen! Put your hands together and welcome Cassidy to the stage!’” she writes. “I move to the front of the stage and swing my hips from side to side while scanning the roomful of strangers looking up at me. First song, clothes stay on. Second song, top comes off. By the middle of the third song…naked.”

Conceded Warhaft in a CJR interview, “This wasn’t the life I envisioned for myself.”

The Good Stripper reveals the punishing circumstances and self-destructive behaviours that shaped Warhaft’s early adulthood, including a bank-robbing stepfather, eating disorders, sexual misadventures with a manipulative husband, and the loss of her beloved mother.

At 50, Warhaft is a survivor of deep-seated trauma and shame.

Marci Warhaft
Marci Warhaft

Jewish-born in Montreal, she describes her younger self as “confident and outspoken,” and very close with her family. A good student and dance lover, Warhaft was accepted into Dawson College’s prestigious Dome Theatre school.

She was 17 when she lost her brother. His death shaped her life forever.

“I was not emotionally equipped for life without Billy,” she recalled. “When Billy passed away, the only thing that gave me solace was the book by Rabbi Harold Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People. I carried that book with me like a bible for a year.”

Following her brother’s death, Warhaft developed an eating disorder that lasted through her 40s. To help her survive, she decided to perform random acts of kindness. Instead of mourning her brother’s death, she would celebrate his life.

“I’d visit a coffee shop and purchase maybe 20 cups of coffee so the next 20 people who come in to the shop would get their coffee for free,” Warhaft recounted. “I’ve brought flowers to seniors’ home and toys to children’s hospitals.”

By the year 2000, a rare adverse reaction to an antibiotic put Warhaft in the hospital fighting for her life. She was five months pregnant with a 16-month-old son at home.

The experience left her with post-traumatic stress syndrome.

“I was given a 25 percent chance to live, spending two months in the hospital and 17 days in the ICU with kidney and respiratory failure,” Warhaft said.

Warhaft explained that her many surgery scars represent fear, loss and pain, while her tattoos speak to hope, love and survival.

She proudly boasts 18 chai tattoos on her body, all reflecting qualities she believes she has come to embody: “Courage”, “Endure, Persist, Prevail” and “Strength” are just a few of her personal mantras.

An especially poignant tattoo on her inner forearm reads, “You Are Loved.” It refers to the end of her marriage.

“The tattoo artist traced the words ‘You’ and ‘Are’ from handwritten letters from my mother and brother. It is their handwriting on my arm and serves as a reminder that no matter what happens, I will always be loved by them.”

Now vibrant and healthy, Warhaft lives in Toronto with her young-adult sons. As a recognized expert on body image and self-esteem, she is the author of The Body Image Survival Guide For Parents: Helping Toddlers, Tweens and Teens Thrive, and speaks to schoolchildren across Ontario in her “Fit vs. Fiction” body image workshops.

She dedicates her latest book to anyone “struggling to forgive themselves for the mistakes they made when they were just trying to survive.”

The Good Stripper was released Sept. 22 is available on Amazon, Kindle and in bookstores.

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.

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.”

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…”

Montréal Sait Faire: Cool Ways to Mark High Holidays

Sept. 15, 2020 – By JANICE ARNOLD

MONTREAL — Six months into the COVID pandemic, Montreal Jewish organizations have come up with creative ways to observe the High Holidays outside the synagogue, while adhering to health regulations and making the best use of technology.

Chabad of Westmount got an early start with “To Life! An Epic Celebration of 5781” at a drive-in theatre held Sept. 14.

The sprawling Royalmount Drive-In Event Theatre opened this summer at the heavily-trafficked intersection of Décarie Boulevard and Highway 40, providing a venue for socially-distanced, open-air live entertainment.

The aim was “to life our spirits and celebrate the coming new year and the new hope it brings,” said Chabad director Rabbi Yossi Shanowitz.

Participants could stay in their car or sit beside it in chairs they brought, maintaining two-metre distancing for movements beyond that.

“To Life!” featured the eight-piece band Shtreiml and a performance by acrobats from Cirque du Soleil, which has been grounded since the start of the pandemic, and a pre-packaged dinner. There was also blowing of the shofar and song.

Jewish National Fund Montreal is also encouraging its supporters to prepare for the new year in a freilich way. It’s presenting a virtual wine tasting and live tour of the Golan Heights Winery in Israel on Sept. 16.

Participants can purchase packages of three, four or seven bottles of its Mount Hermon label vintages in advance to enjoy the tasting for real, and get a partial tax receipt.

Zoomed yoga and mindfulness are part of observance for Montreal Open Shul, a “post-denominational” pop-up project started by Rabbis Sherril Gilbert and Schachar Orenstein and Cantor Heather Batchelor that has been bringing inclusive, participatory Judaism to “unexpected places” like cafés, community centres and yoga studios since 2018.

Its High Holiday services and programs, all online, promise “more joy, less oy.”

The first-day Rosh Hashanah service is accompanied by live music with Fran Avni. On the second day, Orenstein, a certified instructor, leads a hatha yoga practice “through the lens of teshuvah” and a chanting service. Gilbert continues the theme of deep repentence during the Days of Awe through “centring practice.”

The sole in-person component is tashlich and shofar blowing at Beaver Lake on Mount Royal.

Following a Yom Kippur service, American musician, actor and Jewish studies instructor Anita Silvert present a “Bibliodrama” based on the Book of Jonah.

Two American rabbis, Jan Salzman and Mark Novak of the Jewish Renewal movement, join Gilbert and Orenstein for the concluding Yizkor and Neilah observances.

The Mile End Chavurah is also going almost entirely virtual. Founded 11 years ago, the grassroots, multi-generational community describes itself as “irreverently pious,” while seeking to re-imagine religious practice.

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services are conducted by ritual leaders, singers and musicians, and aim to be as participatory as is possible with everyone at home.

On the second day of Rosh Hashanah, four options are offered: a one-day out-of-town retreat for contemplation and study that may involve yoga and nature walks; an apple-picking outing; an outdoor gathering in the city; or the online “Songs of Social Action,” when participants can sing songs on themes ranging from anti-racism to LGBTQ issues to Israeli-Palestinian peace.

The Museum of Jewish Montreal reports that the virtual cooking workshop on Moroccan Rosh Hashanah cuisine held on Sept. 13, hosted by its partner Wandering Chew, went well.

Ron Arazi of New York Shuk, an artisanal food purveyor specializing in Sephardic and Middle Eastern Jewish cuisine, showed viewers how to make such traditional holiday dishes as tanzeya, a stew of dried fruits, nuts and carmelized onions, and pain petri, an anise-flavoured challah.

Even the annual POP Montreal International Music Festival, which opens Sept. 23 in a hybrid in-person and virtual edition showcasing indie and alternative acts, is getting into the spirit of the season.

It closes Sept. 27 with “Alphabet of Wrongdoing: A Jewish Liturgical Redux,” a live-streamed performance by Daniela Gesundheit from Los Angeles. She sings her composition inspired by the High Holidays liturgy, adapted “for secular audiences and secular spaces.”

Gesundheit, who divides her time between Los Angeles and Toronto, is a cantor and serves Toronto’s LGBTQ-inclusive Congregation Shir Libeynu as musical director. She is also founder and lead vocalist of the indie-pop band Snowblink. 

“Alphabet of Wrongdoing,” which she created a few years ago, is derived from the Yom Kippur prayer Ashamnu during which one confesses sins of the past year – alphabetically.

Her composition draws on its “themes of reckoning, forgiveness, mortality, striving and atonement,” she says, which should resonate with everyone.

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.

$100 Million Campaign Aims to Soften Blow from COVID

Sept. 14, 2020 – By JANICE ARNOLD

MONTREAL – The co-chairs of the extraordinary $100-million campaign underway to save the Montreal Jewish community from the ravages of COVID are vested in industries among the hardest hit: Commercial real estate and live entertainment.

But Jonathan Wener, chairman of the Canderel Group, and Mitch Garber, chairman of Cirque du Soleil, consider themselves very fortunate to have the financial resources that will allow them to weather the crisis.

They are pleading with those in a similar position to think of the many in the community who are experiencing real economic hardship.

Wener and Garber head up Federation CJA’s two-year “Community Recovery and Resilience Campaign,” launched in July to replace the usual annual Combined Jewish Appeal held in the fall.

In a Sept. 8 videoconference, the co-chairs described the “suffering” in the community, particularly among small business owners, such as those in the retail, manufacturing, import/export and restaurant sectors.

Companies, sometimes built up over decades, are closing or on the verge of doing so, they said. Montreal Jews are also not being spared from the widespread job losses.

If the $100-million goal is reached, $40 million will go directly to seeing those worst hit through the next 12 to 18 months, enough time, it is hoped, for them to get back on their feet.

The virtual event was organized by The Network, the CJA division for business and professional people over age 40.

“The reality is 99.9 per cent of people are gravely affected,” said Garber. “It’s very sad. It causes me great pain.”

He is witnessing devastation in his own world. In March, Cirque du Soleil suspended all shows, putting all but a couple of hundred of its 6,000 employees out of work and reducing annual revenue, which had been between $1 and $2 billion, to zero.

Mitch Garber
Mitch Garber

Garber is also chairman of Invest in Canada, a federal agency trying to attract foreign investment.

“This is a most difficult year to ask for money,” he said. “We are asking those who can to make up for those can’t give this year. We are asking you to hurt a little bit,” he said.

Wener, who is chancellor of Concordia University, was blunt.

“Many people have lost businesses and life savings, businesses they created themselves from nothing. It’s truly sad.”

Jonathan Wener
Jonathan Wener

He knows of families in the community who have “zero income” because both partners have lost their jobs.

“This is probably the worst year since the Depression. People are suddenly below the poverty line. They are bleeding to death,” he said.

“If you lost cash flow this year, think of those who are in a much worse situation. Take a little piece of your wealth (and give to the campaign).”

Wener said he believes businesses will gradually bring employees now working at home back to the office, at least for part of the week.

“Socially, people need to congregate. You can operate a company on Zoom, but you can’t build a company on it…People need to be able to walk down a hall and ask (a colleague), ‘What do you think of this?’ That’s how you build a community.”

He’s less optimistic about in-store shopping. The growth of e-commerce, he said, has only accelerated. Across Canada, “we are over-stored.”

Wener foresees underperforming shopping centres, with their large lots, being transformed into residential units or medical offices, which would bring traffic to the remaining retail tenants.

As for the future of live entertainment, Garber believes pent-up demand will fuel an eventual return to pre-pandemic times, when the crisis eases.

“People are hungry to get back out to live events, but it will take a long time.”

Segal Centre to Resume Live Performances After ‘Intermission’

By JANICE ARNOLD

MONTREAL – Dark since March, the Segal Centre for Performing Arts stage will light up again before the end of the year.

Segal Centre

The Segal will present American playwright Glen Berger’s one-man drama Underneath the Lintel in December in its main theatre, marking the opening of a season that is expected to be a mix of live and online programming.

This is a co-production with Theatre du Nouveau Monde (TNM), the Segal’s first collaboration with the venerable Montreal theatre, and the French section of the National Arts Centre in Ottawa.

The downtown TNM presents the play in French translation as Zebrina: Une piece a conviction in September. The same actor, Emmanuel Schwartz, and director, Francois Girard, headline both productions. Girard is a distinguished Quebec cultural figure, best known as the director of such films as The Red Violin, an Academy Award winner, and last year’s Holocaust-themed The Song of Names.

Segal artistic director Lisa Rubin said between about 65 and 95 people can be accommodated in the 300-seat main theatre to comply with Quebec’s physical distancing directives. The exact number at each performance will be based on how many patrons come from the same household and can sit together, she explained.

An online option will also be offered. The dates of the run are still to be determined, but Rubin expects tickets to go on sale in October.

The Segal had to abruptly cut short the last season midway through the musical The Times They are A Changin’ on March 12 when the government banned indoor gatherings of over 250 people. That directive presaged the province’s full-scale lockdown announced two days later.

There were two plays remaining in the 2019-2020 subscription series, including the acclaimed Oslo in its Montreal English-language premiere.

On top of that, Rubin was just about to announce the six-play lineup for the coming season that would have started this fall, which was abandoned due to the uncertainty of the times.

On Aug. 3, the government gave the green light to performance venues to host audiences of up to 250 people, seated at least 1.5 metres apart.

French theatres in Montreal, unlike most English ones in Canada, are mounting new seasons, and that proved fortuitous for the Segal, Rubin said.

There is Jewish content in Underneath the Lintel and TNM’s artistic director Lorraine Pintal contacted the Segal for guidance on handling it.

Since its premiere in 2001 in Los Angeles, Underneath the Lintel has been produced widely, sometimes stirring controversy. The sole character, a Dutch librarian, goes on an international quest to solve the mystery of a travel guide, returned anonymously – 113 years overdue. The legend of the Wandering Jew, commonly viewed as a figment of Christian anti-Semitism, is woven into the unfolding story.

From there quickly grew the idea of staging the play in its original English at the Segal.

The shutdown has been devastating for the Segal and the many people who rely on it for their livelihood, but Rubin assured that its survival is not in jeopardy.

She said over 100 contracts with actors, crew and others involved with the cancelled season had to be broken, and the Segal’s own staff has been reduced to a “small team.”

Federation CJA, of which the Segal is an agency, withdrew its funding, a decision Rubin accepts was necessary in order to reallocate resources to the community’s most pressing needs during the pandemic crisis.

The Segal continues to receive money from the three levels of government, but that amounts to less than $200,000. It has an endowment that will help see it through to better times, said Rubin, but support from donors and patrons is still crucial.

She made clear that the Segal family is not going to bail out the centre.

“Their job is done; they are not going to rescue us. It’s up to the community and our audience now.”

For now, Rubin is focused on getting the Segal physically ready to welcome back its audience after a long “intermission.” Although all safety precautions will be in place, she promises that theatre-going in the age of COVID can be fun.

“This has been devastating for the cultural sector. There is no precedent for what we are going through,” she said. “We are writing our own script for this.”

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.

Pulling Up Steaks: Venerable Moishes Leaves The Main After Eight Decades

By JANICE ARNOLD

MONTREAL—The bold, red sign looming over St. Laurent Boulevard that immortalized a poor Romanian-Jewish immigrant for generations will soon disappear with the closure of the eponymous Moishes restaurant, which has been at the same location since it opened in 1938.

The landmark is one of Montreal’s oldest and most famous dining establishments.

A casualty of the pandemic and possibly the vision of the upscale steakhouse’s new owners, Moishes will rise again someday, somewhere, promises its manager Lenny Lighter, son of Moishe. But if it does, the restaurant’s legion of devotees know it will never be the same.

Lighter and his brother Larry, who took over the eatery from their father, sold Moishes to the Sportscene group, a company that most notably owns the Cage aux Sports chain of resto-bars, in December 2018. Lenny stayed on as manager.

Like all restaurants, Moishes had been closed since March when the province went into lockdown. The Quebec government gave Montreal restaurants the green light to reopen on June 22, and patrons grew nervous as the weeks passed but no word came on when they could sink their teeth again into one of Moishes’ “charbroiled, dry-aged” strip loins, with sides like chopped liver and matzoh ball soup.

On July 8, a website post revealed that the owners were “still evaluating our options,” but the tone was upbeat. Then, this month, Lighter made known that Moishes was “on hiatus” indefinitely. Although it had not been public, Moishes’ lease was expiring at the end of this year and the owners had concrete plans to move the restaurant downtown, to Victoria Square.

Lighter explained the move would breathe new life into the venerable institution; moving it closer to offices and hotels, where it would attract more workers and tourists.

Sportscene was about to make a $5 million investment in the new premises and construction was set to begin Aug. 1, Lighter said, but when COVID hit and the restaurant industry went into a tailspin, it was felt it “would not make sense” to go ahead with the project.

Lighter said the “intent” remains that Moishes returns, but that will depend on the course of the pandemic and the economy.

According to legend, Moishe Lighter, who immigrated to Montreal in the 1920s, was a busboy who won the restaurant in a poker game. It was originally called Romanian Paradise, and was situated in the heart of the immigrant Jewish district, now known as the Plateau Mont-Royal.

The name was changed to Moishe’s around the beginning of the Second World War (the apostrophe was dropped in the 1970s to conform to Bill 101, Quebec’s French language charter.)

In its early decades, the clientele was largely Jewish. Traditional Eastern European fare was kept on the menu right up to the present day, although there was no pretense of being “kosher style,” as shrimp cocktail and lobster rolls were gradually added.

Also preserved over the decades was the ambience. Moishes was upstairs, removed from the bustle of the gritty “Main.” Patrons entered an elegant Old World dining room, with chandeliers and starched white table linen, subdued lighting, and hushed tones. Formally attired waiters were attentive but discreet. Many of the staff worked there for decades; at least one server clocked over 50 years. And Lenny and/or Larry were always on site seeing that diners were happy.

Their father’s black-and-white photo remained the logo, over the cursive Moishes signature.

For certain families, Friday night Shabbat dinner at Moishes was a long-running tradition. Eiran Harris, a volunteer in the Jewish Public Library archives for many years, said he made sure to conserve an old menu someone donated to its holdings because he recognized that the restaurant was a piece of Montreal Jewish history.

Plenty of celebrities ate there over that history: Hollywood actors, sports personalities, politicians. A Polish cardinal named Karol Wojtyla reportedly had a satisfying meal under Lighter’s watch during a Canadian visit in 1969. Wojtyla later became Pope John Paul II.

In 2012, Forbes magazine rated Moishes among the top 10 steakhouses in the world, just one of the numerous accolades the restaurant has received from the media and industry.

Writer Mordecai Richler was a frequent patron, apparently drawn as much to the Scotch as the steak. He made oblique references to a Moishes-like eatery in his novels.

Troubadour Leonard Cohen also came often when he was in town. Cohen, who died in 2016, maintained a home nearby.

Lighter recalled that Cohen, whom he considered a friend, preferred the lamb chops, accompanied by a red Bordeaux.

This was borne out with the posthumous publication in 2018 of The Flame, a collection of Cohen’s previously unpublished poems and lyrics that he had compiled as a final work. One of the pieces, entitled “Lambchops,” dated 2006, opens with the lines: “Thinking of those lambchops of Moishe’s the other night.” Fittingly, his family held a wake for Cohen at Moishes.

Moishes’ heyday was probably in the 1970s when expense accounts received little scrutiny, liquid lunches were de rigueur, and red meat was considered healthy.

Retired accountant turned thriller writer Robert Landori recalled that for several years, he took the manager of his bank to Moishes at least once a week mid-day.

“He was an aficionado of steak and Scotch – always two, and then back to work. What I remember most is our waiter; he knew everybody, he remembered what we ate and drank, how I liked my steak. We won’t see the like of Moishes again.”

Physical Museum of Jewish Montreal Will Return, Director Assures

Aug. 25, 2020 – By JANICE ARNOLD

MONTREAL – The Museum of Jewish Montreal (MJM), evicted from its premises in June, has resumed some of its popular walking tours through historic Jewish neighbourhoods, keeping alive its real-life presence while it assesses its future.

Led by trained guides, the family-friendly tours focus on little-known stories about Jewish life and intriguing personalities in the Plateau Mont-Royal and Mile End districts of yesteryear. COVID precautions are observed: Everyone must wear a mask and keep a safe distance.

Founder and executive director Zev Moses says MJM is using the “shocking” loss of its physical location as a time to review its mission, and he is “cautiously optimistic” MJM will have a new home by next year.

Since 2016, MJM had occupied a street-level storefront at the corner of St. Laurent Boulevard and Duluth Street, in the heart of what had been the Jewish immigrant district, and today’s trendy Plateau. The former industrial building was originally the Vineberg garment factory, dating to 1912.

MJM was preparing to reopen after being locked down since mid-March, when it received notice in May from a new landlord that the space was going to be leased to another tenant and that the museum would have to vacate by June 30, Moses said.

The timing was especially painful because MJM, which began as a virtual conception, was looking forward to its 10th anniversary celebration this year.

“We hope to have (a new place) by next spring, there’s a good possibility, but it will depend on where the pandemic and economy goes,” he said.

Moses, a rabbi’s son who holds a master’s degree in urban planning from the University of Pennsylvania, started MJM as an online portal where users could connect to Montreal Jewish history and culture interactively. Its signature feature was “mapping” key Jewish sites and linking them to people and events. The site also archives personal stories of the Montreal Jewish past.

In a reversal of the societal direction, Moses expanded into bricks and mortar, a gamble he said paid off and allowed MJM to reach a far broader audience, both in the Jewish community and general population.

Despite the name, MJM was never strictly a “museum,” and only in the past few years has been holding exhibitions by independent Canadian Jewish artists and rescuing artifacts of disappearing Jewish landmarks, like shop signs.

Rather, Moses conceived of MJM as a hub where Jews of all ages and identities could gather, and non-Jews would feel comfortable dropping in and learning a little about what Jews are all about.

Moses was particularly keen to showcase the diversity of the Montreal Jewish community and how it is an integral part of the city’s history and character.

A big draw was Fletcher’s, the food counter where modern twists on various ethnic Jewish cuisines could be sampled, as well as musical programs – typically informal klezmer performances by young artists. MJM strived to be a good neighbour, taking part in the Plateau’s festivals and forming ties with area community groups.

Moses said MJM was especially successful in attracting Jews under age 35 who might otherwise not be involved with community life, and in changing ill-informed images about Jews among Quebecers.

“It really had become a second home for many,” he said. So much so, that at about 1,200 square feet, including office space, MJM’s location was getting too small anyway, said Moses.

Those are his prime selling points as he seeks support for MJM’s continuation. 

“If there is a silver lining, this has given us time to re-conceive what we will look like post-pandemic,” he said.

The walking tours, now in their ninth season, have been a major source of income, but with tourism down drastically, it would not have made sense to run the usual schedule this season, Moses noted, even if MJM was still open. Nevertheless, he felt it worthwhile to offer a limited number and is pleased to see Montrealers joining them.

“Why not take a walk with an expert and learn something you didn’t know about your city?” he asked. “These neighbourhoods today are very popular with students and families, but most don’t know the stories that are hidden in their own backyards.”

Three different tours are available, scheduled Tuesdays through Sundays. Bookings may be made at tours@imjm.ca.

“’Bubble tours” are also offered for private groups of up to eight family members or friends. In the coming months, MJM plans to launch virtual tours as well. Meanwhile, a variety of online programming is set to resume, after a summer break, at the end of August.

Between 55-60 percent of MJM’s revenue has come from private donors, perhaps six to seven percent of that from Federation CJA or the Jewish Community Foundation of Montreal, Moses said.

About 30 per cent was self-generating through rentals of the space, ticket sales, and the food counter’s receipts. The rest was government funding.

Moses said all nine permanent staff members have been retained, but in the summer, the number employed normally swells to about 30.

Genealogy Buff Cited for Indexing Montreal Jewish Graves

Aug 20, 2020 – By JANICE ARNOLD

MONTREAL—Those given to black humour may joke that Gary Perlman has spent more time in cemeteries than some of their denizens.

But the retired software developer is deadly serious in his quest to photograph as many gravestones in Montreal-area Jewish burial grounds as he possibly can, and to research each person who lies beneath.

Over the past five years, Perlman has photographed more than 40,000 stones, some dating back to the early 19th century, finding ingenious ways to make legible often worn or damaged inscriptions, or to illuminate those in obscurity.

Gary Perlman
Gary Perlman

He has submitted these high-quality images, along with records about the deceased he has organized, had translated from Hebrew, and frequently added to or corrected – a total of over 100,000 items – to JOWBR, the JewishGen Online Worldwide Burial Registry.

JOWBR catalogues data on Jewish cemeteries around the world and makes it available in searchable format to genealogists and other researchers everywhere, free of charge.

Perlman, who has done all this without remuneration, was already a hero to his fellow members of the Jewish Genealogical Society of Montreal (JGS-M). Now, he’s being recognized around the globe. This month, the modest Perlman received the 2020 Volunteer of the Year award from the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies (IAJGS), an umbrella organization of over 50 groups. Due to the pandemic, its 40th annual conference was held virtually.

“It’s meaningful that people appreciate what I am doing,” said Perlman, who carries on his sleuthing and hopes the honour will convince reluctant Montreal Jewish cemeteries to give him permission to shoot there as well and add to JOWBR’s Montreal holdings.

A glaring omission is two of the city’s oldest and largest synagogues: Congregation Shaar Hashomayim and Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom. Perlman has worked in Canada’s oldest Jewish congregation’s cemetery, the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, founded more than 250 years ago.

He has completed documentation of two other historic sites: the Baron de Hirsch Cemetery, Montreal’s largest Jewish cemetery, opened in 1905, and its affiliated Back River Memorial Gardens, dating to the late 1800s. The latter, located in the Ahuntsic-Cartierville borough far from today’s Jewish population, was especially challenging due to its having been left to deteriorate for a long time before a restoration.

Many of its nearly 7,000 stones were crumbling but Perlman managed to capture high-resolution pictures of all of them. Through countless hours of trial and error, he has discovered just the right angle or time of day to coax out eroded epitaphs that were thought to have been lost forever.

He has done all the city’s Holocaust memorials (1,900-plus names) and war casualty monuments (some 600 names), including from the Jewish section of the National Field of Honour in Pointe-Claire, which are posted on JewishGen’s memorial plaque page.

Balancing respect for privacy with the imperative to preserve and share the unique and rich source of Jewish history the burial data represent is a guiding principle for Perlman.

JOWBR, which logs 3.7 million photos and records from 8,666 cemeteries in 130 countries, considers the work Perlman does a mitzvah.

This treasure trove, however, is of little use and can be downright misleading when there are errors, and Perlman found an astonishing number of those even in such basic information as names and dates on both the stones and in the cemeteries’ archives.

A 63-year-old Montreal native, Perlman spent his 30-year career in the United States after receiving a PhD at the University of California at San Diego. He is a late-blooming amateur genealogist, not having done much snooping into his own ancestors until he attended one of the JGS-M’s free workshops for beginners.

He found in its enthusiastic president, Stanley Diamond – also co-founder and executive director of Jewish Records Indexing-Poland, a pioneering digitizer and democratizer of genealogical data – a kindred spirit who recognized modern technology’s power to unlock the past.

Perlman became JGS-M’s webmaster and set about to update the society’s existing cemetery indexing project, which since 2007, had collected a few thousand photos, many of which weren’t good enough for optimal reproduction online.

Perlman does not find spending so much time among the dead morbid. “Not at all!” he replied when asked if it has made him reflect on his own mortality. But on his early expeditions, he did find heartbreaking the tragic tales some stones told, such as the mother and her two children killed in a plane crash who rest together, or the mass unmarked grave of children who died in epidemics.

He couldn’t fail to notice the increased number of burials since the COVID pandemic, which has touched him personally. Another of his volunteer endeavours has been helping elderly residents of the Maimonides Geriatric Centre put together their family trees. He lost three of his “clients” to COVID.

Intriguing and sometimes humorous epitaphs have lightened his days in the field. He has numerous examples, such as the double monument of a couple. On her side it reads: “Saul would rather be golfing.”

Then there was “Don’t forget the Bubba” or “Resting in peace, no conversation please” that made him chuckle.

The IAJGS also cited Perlman for directly linking JOWBR search results to the JGS-M website (jgs-montreal.org) where supplemental information, like parents’ names (including the Hebrew ones) can be found, as well as the location and condition of the grave. He is lauded for creating the JewishGen Dashboard, where users can search some 50 databases from a single web page on the JGS-M site.

Perlman was nominated for Volunteer of the Year by Diamond, and “strongly endorsed” by JOWBR coordinator Nolan Altman who praised Perlman’s “unending attention to detail. His submissions to JOWBR are always clear, complete and precise…When Gary submits data/photos I know it will be correct.”

Wrote Diamond to the IAJGS, “I treasure volunteers who, not only step forward when asked, but who carry out their task with passion and devotion…Gary is most certainly one of the best in this regard.”

Recovery Campaign Launched for Community’s ‘Greatest Challenge’

July 27, 2020 – By JANICE ARNOLD

MONTREAL—Declaring that the COVID pandemic poses a “possibly existential threat to Jewish life as we know it,” Federation CJA here will try to raise $100 million over the next two years to meet the immediate needs of community members most negatively affected and to ensure the long-term survival of needed institutions.

The Community Recovery Campaign, launched virtually on July 23, replaces the traditional fall Combined Jewish Appeal, now in its 103rd year. It is co-chaired by prominent businessmen Mitch Garber and Jonathan Wener, who stressed that the 90,000-member community now faces its worst crisis in generations.

The Federation estimates 3,000-5,000 Montreal Jews have become “newly vulnerable”’ due to loss of employment or business and economic hardship exacerbated by social problems, and will need community support. These people are in addition to the approximately 18,000 who were already receiving some kind of relief before the pandemic, Federation says.

Garber said there are families who cannot make their mortgage or rent payments, let alone continue to send their children to Jewish day schools or maintain synagogue memberships.

Wener, a veteran community leader, commented on the economic fallout and human toll of the pandemic: “I have never seen such carnage in my lifetime,” he said. “This is our community’s greatest challenge in living memory.”

Demand for low-cost housing alone is up by 400 percent, says the Federation, which has recently opened a subsidized apartment building. The psychological stress of the ongoing health crisis is evident in increased domestic violence and addiction the Federation’s agencies are seeing.

Federation estimates that 300 Montreal Jewish community members have died from COVID, and a moment of silence was held for them during the launch of the Community Recovery Campaign.

The Federation has cut its own expenses in order to re-allocate resources to where they are most needed, said CEO Yair Szlak. Its staff has been reduced by 30 percent through layoffs and attrition. Remaining staff have had their salaries reduced, with senior management seeing cuts at a higher percentage, Szlak said.

The net result is a reduction in human resources expenses of more than 60 percent. Other costs have been trimmed by close to 70 percent, he said.

Its dozen agencies have also slashed their overhead, and Federation is now funding them on a monthly basis, Szlak said. A much “leaner” community apparatus is anticipated for the foreseeable future.

The campaign’s priority is to provide relief to those newly turning to the community over the next 12 to 18 months so they can get back on their feet and not become permanently dependent, said Federation president Gail Adelson-Marcovitz.

“This could mark the beginning of a period of significant decline for the community if we do not act now,” she warned.

A sum of $40 million is earmarked for an emergency fund, with the remaining $60 million sought going to what would have been the general campaign.

The launch’s guest speaker was Bari Weiss, who surprised many when she resigned as a staff opinion writer and editor at The New York Times this month.

In her letter to the paper’s publisher, which she made public, Weiss claimed she had been “bullied” by colleagues during her two years on the job, ostensibly for her pro-Israel views and advocacy against antisemitism, as well as for her unpopular conservatism.

Connecting to the Zoom conference from San Francisco, Weiss said the COVID pandemic should make Jewish communities in North America ponder deeply about what is “essential,” and that may not include the impressive physical structures like those she grew up with in Pittsburgh.

Instead, she suggested, communities should prioritize what ensures a sustainable and full Jewish life for all.

She urged communities to “think audaciously” about what their post-pandemic Jewish life will look like, and perhaps find an example in the early Zionists who took a leap of faith in leaving sometimes comfortable lives in Europe to fulfill an ideal.

“If there is a silver lining, it is that this is an opportunity for tshuvah, for return to what truly matters…to decide what is essential for generations to come,” she said.

Weiss, author of the book How to Fight Anti-Semitism, said her sense of security as a Jew in America was shattered by the murderous attack on the Tree of Life Synagogue, where she had her bat mitzvah.

Now, as an outspoken “public Jew,” Weiss said she is the recipient of criticism “as a Jew” and worse, death threats, but this has only strengthened her conviction to “represent the Jewish people in a way that reflects well on all of us.”

Antisemitism has “intensified” with the pandemic, she said, because “historically, whenever there has been turmoil people look for a villain, and that has almost always been the Jew.”

On the Record – Canadian Jewish Musicians of Note

SAMY ELMAGHRIBI/SALOMON AMZALLAG (April 19, 1922 – March 9, 2008) Singer-Songwriter, Cantor, Poet, Oud Player

July 22, 2020 – By DAVID EISENSTADT

By night, Samy Elmaghribi was dubbed the Moroccan Charles Aznavour – with a pop singer’s global reputation.

By day, he was Salomon Amzallag, the first Moroccan cantor at Montreal’s famed Spanish & Portuguese Synagogue. Known as Shearith Israel, on St. Kevin Street in Montreal since 1960, it’s Canada’s oldest Jewish congregation, established in 1768. Cantor Amzallag served there from 1967 to 1984.

Cantor Salomon Amzallag

Two cantors have since sung from the Spanish & Portuguese bimah, including Yehuda Abittan and present-day chazzan Daniel Benlolo, who was one of Amzallag’s students.

Amzallag was Benlolo’s mother’s cousin, and so the Montreal synagogue became their family’s new home.

“He’s the inspirational reason I became a chazzan and his shul was where I received my training,” Cantor Benlolo said. “He was a wonderful mentor. Over the years, I have been privileged to serve Sephardic and Ashkenazi congregations in Ottawa, New York, Atlanta and Caracas, to name a few. Two and-a-half years ago, I was pleased to return home to Shearith Israel to work and live in Montréal.”

Amzallag was born in Safi, a city in western Morocco. His family moved to Rabat in 1926. Growing up, he taught himself to play the oud, a short-neck, lute-type pear-shaped string instrument that dates to Assyria.

Early on, young Samy familiarized himself with Arab-Andalusian music, attending the Conservatoire de Music de Casablanca. Starting at age 20, he studied with many of the great Andalusian masters of his time.

Christopher Silver, an assistant professor of Jewish History and Culture at McGill University, has called him “a mid-twentieth century Moroccan superstar.”

“From his debut in 1948 through his professional zenith in 1956, he was a ubiquitous presence on radio and in concert,” Silver wrote in a recent issue of the International Journal of Middle East Studies.

Samy El Maghribi - Cantor Salomon Amzallag

As radio spread across Morocco, Elmaghribi’s live performances on radio and constant playing of his records on air “helped cement his status as the nation’s voice during a formative political moment.”

His popularity spilled over to commercial advertising: Elmaghribi  became an official spokesperson for Coca-Cola in Morocco. “His spoken dialogues and musical hooks for the soft drink company were played in heavy rotation on Radio Tangier International over the next several years,” wrote Silver. During this period, he became the sound of brands like Gillette, Palmolive, Canada Dry and Shell Oil.

A popular entertainer, Elmaghribi built a world-wide fan base and reinforced his Arab-Andalusian musical heritage with performances in Caracas, Jerusalem, Los Angeles, Montreal and New York, as well as playing for Moroccan fans in Oujda and Rabat. Listen to his music here.

Yet, he was committed to his cultural roots and to the sacred liturgical genre, said his daughter, Yolande Amzallag, who helped create Fondation Samy Elmaghribi.

Samy Elmaghribi and Cantor Salomon Amzallag “were one and the same person,” Yolande Amzallag told the Morocco World News at the foundation’s 2015 launch, “despite the fact they performed in different settings whose integrity was never challenged by the apparent dichotomy between the sacred and the secular.”

Her father’s allegiance to God was matched by his allegiance to art, she went on, “and he aspired to spiritual elevation both as an artist and as a practicing Jew.”

After he retired, Amzallag moved to Israel and founded Merkaz Piyyut Veshira, a centre for Sephardic music from where, from 1988 to 1994, he was pedagogical director, according to his biography.

He also co-founded and performed with the Israeli Andalusian Orchestra. In 2006, the orchestra won the country’s highest honour, the Israel Prize.

In November 2008, a few months after his death, Elmaghribi was posthumously recognized by Morocco’s King Mohammed VI, who awarded him the Commander of the Order of Ouissam Alaouite medal for Meritorious Service to Morocco.

His wife, Messody Cohen-Amzallag, died in Ashdod on April 5, 2015. The couple’s children created the foundation “to perpetuate their teachings of respect for tradition, openness to others and generosity through the love of music.”


David Eisenstadt
David Eisenstadt

David Eisenstadt is founding partner of tcgpr and is a graduate of Carleton University’s School of Journalism and the University of Calgary.

Qu’est-ce qu’être Sépharade dans l’Israël d’aujourd’hui?

Par ELIAS LEVY

En 2017, la présentation du documentaire The Ancestral Sin — Le péché ancestral —, réalisé par David Deri, à la télévision israélienne avait suscité un immense tollé. 

En 2019, un autre documentaire sulfureux, Ma’abarot — Camps de transit —, œuvre de la réalisatrice Dina Ziv-Riklis, présenté aussi en début de soirée par une chaîne de télévision israélienne à une heure de forte cote d’écoute, a relancé la polémique houleuse, qui s’était atténuée au fil des années, sur la condition des Sépharades dans l’Israël naissant des années 50 et 60.

Ces deux documentaires-chocs, présentés respectivement dans le cadre des éditions 2019 et 2020 du Festival du cinéma israélien de Montréal (FCIM), évoquent les déboires des immigrants sépharades, majoritairement originaires du Maroc, arrivés en Israël à partir de la fin des années 50. Ces derniers furent victimes d’une discrimination éhontée de la part des bureaucrates de l’Agence juive.

Ce chapitre sombre de l’histoire d’Israël a exhumé des réminiscences que beaucoup de Sépharades avaient enfouies. Les deux documentaires les ont fait rejaillir avec force.

Quel est l’état réel du séphardisme dans la société israélienne d’aujourd’hui ? Y a-t-il toujours une « Question sépharade » dans l’Israël de 2020?

Quatre fins connaisseurs de l’histoire mouvementée des Mizrahim d’Israël nous ont livré leurs vues sur cette question épineuse.

Pour le journaliste israélien Daniel Bensimon, soixante-douze ans après la création de l’État d’Israël, force est de constater que la « Question sépharade », que certains pensaient révolue, est toujours vivace.

Ex-éditorialiste au quotidien de gauche, Haaretz, et ancien député du Parti travailliste à la Knesset, Daniel Bensimon est l’auteur de plusieurs livres remarqués sur la société israélienne et les villes de développement du sud d’Israël. Il est le récipiendaire du plus prestigieux prix de journalisme décerné en Israël, le Sokolov Prize, l’équivalent du prix Pulitzer américain.

« Des documentaires tels que The Ancestral Sin et Ma’abarot sont des œuvres décapantes réalisées par des Sépharades de la troisième génération qui s’escriment à réhabiliter l’honneur bafoué de leurs grands-parents et parents par un establishment ashkénaze arrogant qui les méprisait profondément. Ces derniers étaient considérés comme des êtres illettrés provenant d’un monde arabe moyenâgeux. Ces Mizrahim de la troisième génération sont en colère. Ils se battent pour que la cruelle vérité ayant trait à la condition de leurs aînés dans l’Israël des années 50, 60 et 70 soit enfin dévoilée à la nouvelle génération de Sabras. Au Québec, votre devise est « Je me souviens ». Les Sépharades d’Israël ont fait aussi leur aussi cet a », nous a dit Daniel Bensimon au cours d’une conversation à bâtons rompus sur l’identité sépharade dans l’Israël de la deuxième décade du XXIe siècle.

Pour l’écrivain et éducateur Ami Bouganim, le séphardisme israélien a été instrumentalisé à des fins politiques par des politiciens sépharades et ashkénazes en quête de visibilité ou de légitimité. 

Né dans la ville portuaire marocaine d’Essaouira (Mogador), cet essayiste, romancier et philosophe, qui vit à Netanya depuis 1970, est l’intellectuel sépharade israélien qui a le mieux retracé le déracinement de la communauté juive marocaine d’Israël qui a fait son Aliya dans les années 50 et 60.

« En Israël, le séphardisme ne sait plus ce qu’il est. Il s’est empêtré dans la controverse orientale, où il a gagné en pugnacité politique ce qu’il a perdu en charme littéraire. Je ne connais pas de définition du séphardisme. Les documentaires The Ancestral Sin et Ma’abarot ont secoué les consciences dans la société israélienne. Mais, en réalité, ces deux documentaires ne nous apprennent rien de nouveau. On a gratté de nouveau les blessures, mais sans éclairer lez zones d’ombre qui perdurent. Toutes les archives sur cette question ont déjà été épluchées par des chercheurs. Regrettablement, ces documentaires ont été exploités par des journalistes et des politiciens à des fins politiques ou idéologiques. »

D’après l’historien israélien Michel Abitbol, en Israël, la « Question sépharade » s’est muée au fil des ans en une « Question sociale ».

Professeur émérite de l’Université hébraïque de Jérusalem (UHJ), ex-directeur de l’Institut Ben-Zvi, affilié à l’UHJ — institution de recherche spécialisée dans l’étude de l’histoire des communautés sépharades et orientales — et ancien directeur pédagogique auprès du ministère de l’Éducation d’Israël, Michel Abitbol est un spécialiste reconnu de l’histoire du judaïsme marocain, des Juifs du monde arabe et du conflit israélo-arabe.

« En Israël, les Sépharades reviennent de très loin. Depuis les années 50, ils ont accompli des progrès énormes sur les plans social et politique. Ils se sont frayés une place des plus honorables dans les principaux secteurs de la société israélienne: la politique —un bon nombre de députés de la Knesset sont Sépharades—, les affaires, l’armée — de nombreux hauts gradés de Tsahal, dont plusieurs chefs d’État-major, sont d’origine sépharade —, la culture, les arts, la musique, la gastronomie… Aujourd’hui, l’enjeu majeur n’est plus la séphardité mais les inégalités sociales de plus en plus criantes dans l’Israël de 2020, souligne-t-il. Ces écarts sociaux accentuent la pauvreté et la paupérisation des couches sociales les plus vulnérables, particulièrement dans les villes de développement du Sud d’Israël peuplées majoritairement de Sépharades originaires du Maroc. Il est vrai par contre que des écarts entre Sépharades et Ashkénazes perdurent aux niveaux scolaire et universitaire, par exemple en ce qui a trait au nombre de bacheliers et de diplômés universitaires de deuxième et troisième cycles. Mais, on ne peut plus parler, comme c’était le cas dans les années 50 et 60, d’un racisme systémique institutionnalisé à l’encontre des communautés sépharades. »

Le tiers du nouveau gouvernement d’union nationale dirigé par Benyamin Netanyahou, soit dix ministres, est composé de Sépharades d’origine marocaine.

Selon le célèbre historien israélien Tom Segev, qui consacre dans son dernier livre — A State at Any Cost. The Life of David Ben-Gurion (Farar, Straus and Giroux Publisher, New York, 2019) — des pages passionnantes aux relations tendues qui ont toujours prévalu entre le père fondateur de l’État d’Israël, David Ben Gourion, et les communautés orientales, bien qu’elle soit moins aiguë que dans les années 60, 70 et 80, la « Question sépharade » subsiste toujours en Israël.

« Soixante-douze ans après la fondation d’Israël, la « Question sépharade » n’a pas encore été résolue. Nous le constatons aujourd’hui dans l’attitude raciste adoptée par beaucoup d’Israéliens à l’égard des Juifs éthiopiens, qui sont confrontés à des épreuves aussi ignominieuses, et même pires, que celles que les Juifs originaires du Maroc ont subies lors de leur Aliya dans les années 50, 60. Chose certaine: ce problème, qui date de l’époque de Ben Gourion, n’est pas à la veille d’être dénoué. »


Elias Levy
Elias Levy