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.

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.”

B’nai Brith Hails Justice for Alleged Neo-Nazi

Sept. 2, 2020 – By JANICE ARNOLD

MONTREAL—B’nai Brith Canada is welcoming the news that a court date has been set for an alleged Montreal-based promoter of white supremacy, almost two years after a warrant was issued for his arrest.

Gabriel Sohier Chaput, 33, was identified in media reports as having been one of the most prolific propagandists for racist ideology in North America, notably through the U.S.-based far-right site Daily Stormer, under the pseudonym Zeiger.

Gabriel Chaput

The Montreal Gazette reported on Aug. 28 that Chaput faces one charge of willfully promoting hatred against an identifiable group in 2016, which carries a maximum penalty of two years in prison.

Chaput’s lawyer made a brief appearance in Quebec Court in Montreal this month, when a court date was set for Nov. 24.

Montreal police issued the warrant for Chaput on Oct. 30, 2018, when they indicated his whereabouts were unknown. He was alleged to have engaged in hate speech and attempted to recruit others to his cause.

It was a Gazette investigation, published in May 2018, that provided evidence that Chaput and Zeiger were the same person.

Chaput’s last known address was in Montreal’s Rosemont-La Petite Patrie borough, and he had worked as a computer consultant. Chaput disappeared after the newspaper’s series, and police believed he might have left the country.

Chaput had been on the radar of Montreal anti-fascist activists, who identified him from a Vice News documentary from a 2017 far-right rally in Charlottesville, Va., which he attended.

Following the Gazette articles, B’nai Brith filed a complaint with the Montreal police hate crimes unit. The organization characterizes Chaput as having been “one of the internet’s leading neo-Nazi influencers.”

The Gazette detailed how Chaput tried to recruit other people to his cause through his own encrypted social media platforms and in-person in Montreal at various venues.

“We are pleased that the wheels of justice have begun turning,” stated B’nai Brith CEO Michael Mostyn in a press release. “Dangerous incitement must face criminal consequences. Working to incite hatred and violence against fellow citizens is utterly abhorrent and has no place in Canadian society…What (Chaput) did must not be taken lightly in the eyes of the law.”

* See related story today, Defence Minister Pledges Action on Racists in Military

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.

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.

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