Jewish Community Critical of Quebec’s Rejection of Hanukkah Gatherings

Nov. 24, 2020

By JANICE ARNOLD

MONTREAL – Community leaders say it is unfair that the Quebec government is denying Jews the right to celebrate Hanukkah in the same manner as has been granted to those who observe Christmas under new pandemic rules.

Many in the community find it galling that a government that places such a high value on secularism appears to be privileging Christian tradition in its relaxation of the ban on private gatherings.

When asked by the media about the decision, Premier Francois Legault replied that the lifting of the prohibition on gatherings during four days around Christmas will not be similarly applied to the holidays of other faiths. The eight-day festival of Hankukah begins December 10th.

Rabbi Reuben Poupko, co-chair of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs-Quebec, said Jews should be allowed to get together for the first four days of Hanukkah, observing the same rules that have been set for Christmas.

Rabbi Poupko montreal
Rabbi Poupko

“It is bewildering that the government would prioritize the holiday of one faith community over the others,” Rabbi Poupko said. “I think equality and common sense would demand that every religious community in Quebec be treated fairly and a similar indulgence be extended to each of them.”

Rabbi Poupko, spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Israel Beth Aaron, noted the government did not show any flexibility during the High Holidays. The Jewish community did not ask for any, and it abided by the rules, he said.

Legault, along with Health Minister Christian Dubé and the province’s public health director, Dr. Horacio Arruda, announced on Nov. 19 that Quebecers will be allowed to gather at home in groups of up to 10 people from Dec. 24-27.

But the premier asked that they enter a “moral contract” under which they minimize their physical contact with anyone outside their household for one week before and one week after that period. Although 14 days is the standard quarantine length, public health officials said symptoms of COVID typically appear five to seven days after infection.

Schools are to close two days before they were scheduled to do so, and the government is asking employers to allow personnel to work at home where possible to enable them to comply with the two weeklong isolation periods.

Elementary schools will reopen on Jan. 4 as planned, but high school students will not return to class until Jan. 11 because coronavirus transmission in this age group is higher, authorities say.

This suspension of the ban on private gatherings is contingent on no spike in cases occurring beforehand. The province is seeing an average of close to 1,200 new COVID cases daily, higher than in the first wave.

B’nai Brith Canada said the government should have consulted the Jewish community and other minority religious groups when establishing pandemic rules that impact their practices.

“The Quebec government must take the needs of minority communities, including the Jewish community, into consideration and work pro-actively with these communities prior to the lifting or imposition of unilateral COVID restrictions. There must be no favouritism. The premier must be the premier of all Quebecers,” stated Toronto-based B’nai Brith CEO Michael Mostyn.

Since the beginning of October when the Montreal region entered a partial lockdown, later expanded to much of the province, the rule has been that no one can enter a household who does not live there, with a few exceptions like elder care or tradespeople.

Gatherings outside, such as in a backyard, are also prohibited. That ban has been extended to Jan. 11, at least.

Rulebreakers may face a fine of $1,500 per person.

Previously, the limit had been six people after Montreal went orange under the province’s colour-coded alert system on Sept. 20. 

Houses of worship are permitted to have 25 people inside at a time.

Legault said a “concentration” of time was necessary to make an easing feasible, and the days chosen represent what most Quebecers want. Public health officials added that the days from Dec. 24 to 27 also are in the middle of the school break and most workplace shutdowns.

“We are in a critical situation,” Legault said at the Nov. 19 press conference. “We can permit gatherings during four days only and we say that the majority of Quebecers would be happy that those four days be at Christmas.”

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.

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.”