Leaders of the Hasidic communities are increasing their efforts in urging COVID vaccinations, but refute that there is any greater resistance among their members than the general population.
Since March, before vaccines were widely available, the Quebec Council of Hasidic Jews has been distributing information in Yiddish and English, said coordinator Sam Muller, and “hundreds” have been getting their shots at pop-up clinics set up in a synagogue and a school in association with the health authorities.
The CIUSSS West-Central Montreal, which is responsible for the territory where most Hasidic Jews live, established temporary clinics in Beth Esther Academy in the Outremont borough in late June and, on four different days, at the Ateres Faiga Synagogue in the Mile End district, said spokesperson Barry Morgan. Another one is scheduled for Sept. 1.
The co-operation of the community leadership has been exemplary, the CIUSSS says.
Leaflets about the latest COVID information and rules, created with the Montreal public health department, are being constantly circulated in the synagogues and, some have been sent to every home, Muller said. A hotline is available for questions and volunteers are helping with the booking of appointments.
This drive has intensified as school reopening and the High Holidays approach.
Muller, however, thinks it is a misperception that the vaccination rate among Hasidim is significantly different than the Montreal average.
“It might be one per cent lower or one per cent higher, I don’t know,” he said, “but surely it is not by a big amount. We have the hesitant, the afraid and even anti-vaxxers like anyone else, but almost everyone I know, in my family and my wife’s family, and in my shul, including the rabbi, are vaccinated,” said Muller, who is affiliated with the Vizhnitzer community.
The latest Quebec government statistics for Outremont, where Hasidim account for about 20 per cent of the population, provide some indication that the rate is not inordinately lower. Over 73 per cent of the total population had received at least a single dose and 63 per cent have had two.
One of the chief concerns about the vaccines has been whether they might adversely affect fertility. To dispel this, the Council worked with the local chapter of the “highly trusted” New York-based Bonei Olam, a non-profit organization supporting couples experiencing infertility, and Refuah v’Chesed, a medical clinic on Park Avenue that is sensitive to the needs of the Hasidim, to disseminate accurate information, Muller said.
He is dubious of government statistics released in July showing that Belz Community School had the lowest rate of vaccination among schools on the island of Montreal. The Pfizer vaccine has been available to 12-17-year-olds since May.
As of July 19, the figures showed that just 6.6 per cent of the Belz school’s 204 students had received at least a first dose. By contrast, JPPS/Bialik High School had among the highest rates at over 90 per cent.
Muller notes that most Hasidic youth were away at camps during the summer in the Laurentians or Catskills in New York, where some were vaccinated. The Council was making arrangements with the local health authorities to increase that, he said.
More recent figures made public show that, for the Belz Hillsdale campus, 72 per cent of the 170 students have received the first jab and 34 per cent the second. The numbers for its Ducharme campus were not available.
Vaccination is accelerating in all the schools, said Muller.
Since the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020, the Council, as well as the Jewish Community Council of Montreal (Vaad Ha’ir), has been exhorting the community to comply with public health guidelines, through printed material and telephone resources.
Although they have gone to court this past year to challenge rules regarding gathering in places of worship, and the curfew, the leaders have not condoned defiance of them.
Hasidim here have been acutely aware of the virulence of COVID right from the outset. The first person in Montreal to die from it was a 67-year-old Hasidic man. One of the wealthiest members was critically ill back at the start.
The 3,000-member Tash community in Boisbriand north of Montreal was placed under a strict, police-enforced, month-long quarantine in March 2020. The source of the outbreak was believed to have been members returning from Purim celebrations in New York.