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.”

Pandemic Delays Plans for New Montreal Holocaust Museum

Sept. 22, 2020 – By JANICE ARNOLD

MONTREAL—The COVID pandemic has forced the Montreal Holocaust Museum (MHM) to abandon plans for a new multimillion-dollar premises, but says the project is still going forward.

In her annual report, outgoing president Dorothy Zalcman Howard said the MHM had found “an ideal location” to build a much larger museum and “achieved unprecedented success in obtaining funding commitments…The dream was about to be transformed into reality when COVID struck, and our board faced the difficult decision of stepping back from the brink and reshaping the vision.”



Holocaust survivor Mila Messner is captured in a photographic triptych for the Montreal Holocaust Museum’s new virtual exhibit, Witnesses to History, Keepers of Memory. (Photo courtesy MHM/Stéphanie Cousineau)

But she stressed that a new museum remains a top priority. “I invite you to stay tuned for good news in the future,” Zalcman Howard stated.

In 2018, the MHM announced plans to relocate and expand, leaving the Federation CJA building that was its home since it was founded in 1979.

The Azrieli Foundation pledged to underwrite a third of the cost, up to $15 million.

Zalcman Howard did not specify where that ideal location was, but the museum had said it wanted to move downtown in order to reach a wider audience.

The only one of its kind in Canada, the museum was receiving an ever-increasing number of visitors and demand for its educational services, necessitating the ambitious expansion.

A study by an independent consulting firm supported the project’s feasibility.

The work of the MHM remains more important than ever, as “Holocaust diminishment has taken root and awareness is declining,” Zalcman Howard told the MHM’s annual general meeting, held virtually Sept. 14.

Completing her two-year term as president, she assured: “Our future is vibrant and secure.”

MHM communications director Sarah Fogg later told CJR, “We are actively looking for a new location and have explored three excellent possibilities since April. We are definitely confident we will find a great site.”

The pandemic forced the MHM to close from mid-March until its reopening, with restrictions, on July 6. Despite this curtailment, Zalcman Howard reported that the facility reached hundreds of thousands of people over the previous 12 months, including 20,000 visitors, 9,750 of those students. More than 8,700 attended some 55 events organized by the MHM and 19 Holocaust survivors told their stories to some 12,500 people before the shutdown.

The MHM now has 13,405 items in its collection, the majority donated by local survivors or their descendants, as well as 858 videotaped survivor testimonies.

Following the shutdown, the museum’s already multi-faceted online and digital presence was further enhanced and attracted even more users, Zalcman Howard related.

Executive director Daniel Amar said the website and virtual exhibits had 116,000 visitors, while videos on YouTube of survivors’ testimonies were viewed 198,000 times, a 25 percent increase over the previous year.

The MHM produces pedagogical materials and runs teacher training programs. Over 35,000 visits to the educational pages on its site were recorded, traffic that did not stop while the schools were closed.

Zalcman Howard hailed the fact that her successor, Richard Schnurbach, is the first grandchild of survivors to serve as president of the MHM.

Three new members named to the board of directors reflect the MHM’s aim of attracting a more diverse public. Yasmine Abdelfadel is a founding member of Mémoires & Dialogue, a group fostering rapprochement among Jews and Arabs of North African origin; Widia Larivière is an Indigenous rights activist; while Denis Marion, a former senior political aide to Bloc Québécois and Parti Québécois members, is mayor of Massueville, a town near Sorel-Tracy. He lived in Israel in the late 1980s, earning a master’s degree in political science at Hebrew University.

Jennifer Carter, chair of the museum committee and University of Quebec at Montreal museology professor, is vice-president.

The latest virtual exhibit produced by the MHM is “Witnesses to History, Keepers of Memory,” portraits by Marie-Blanche Fourcade and Eszter Andor of 30 Montreal survivors who were photographed at home with objects that hold precious memories.

The annual meeting began with a memorial to the 60 survivors who died in the past year, conducted by Cantor Hank Topas and Rabbi Mark Fishman of Congregation Beth Tikvah.