Jewish community reacts to coronavirus outbreak

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A group of Jewish day schools in Toronto announced on March 12 that they will be closing their doors starting Monday, March 16 due to the coronavirus, and, because of the Passover break, will not be reopening them until April 20.

“While this is a time of significant uncertainty, two things are clear: We cannot take risks with the health of our students and staff, nor can we do anything that risks undermining substantial measures authorities have enacted to protect public health,” the statement said. The decision had been taken with co-ordination of  Toronto Public Health, the Ontario Ministry of Education, UJA Federation of Greater Toronto and their partner Jewish day schools.

According to the email TanenbaumCHAT high school sent out to its families, the school will be moving to online classes.

Other schools will also be reaching out to share their specific learning plans, the statement said.

Ora Shulman, head of school for Associated Hebrew Day Schools, said the faculty is working on developing an “authentic distance learning plan” using a variety of resources. The school has a professional development meeting scheduled for March 16 for staff to collaborate and create the program, and following the meeting the school will share the specific details of the plan.

The letter was signed by the following schools: Associated Hebrew Day Schools, Bialik Hebrew Day Schools, TanenbaumCHAT, The Toronto Heschel School, The Leo Baeck Day School, Montessori Jewish Day School, Netivot Hatorah Day School, Paul Penna Downtown Jewish Day School and Robbins Hebrew Academy.

Hillel Ontario announced in an email on March 13 that its spaces would remain open, but it’s cancelling all formal in-person gatherings. It also said it would only provide for take away food. Informal get-togethers may still proceed, and staff and students can still meet at a location of their choosing.

On March 13, Quebec ordered all schools to close for two weeks. Herzliah High School/Talmud Torah spokesperson Tova Havis said there is an expectation that it will be extended to Passover. She said that they will be livestreaming classes and special instruction is being arranged for the youngest students in kindergarten through Grade 3.

Shuls in Toronto are also feeling the effects of the coronavirus. Beth David synagogue announced on March 15 that it would be suspending all of its services until the current risk is alleviated, and also suggested congregants refrain from attending services elsewhere.

“The mitzvah of preserving our health and that of our community far overrides the mitzvah of praying in a minyan,” the shul said in a statement on its website.

At Beth Sholom Synagogue, the president tested positive for COVID-19, and entered a 14-day period of self-isolation. Beth Sholom closed its building down on March 9 for a comprehensive cleaning and sanitization of the building following Toronto Public Health guidelines. They announced the building would stay closed through Friday and instead open for Shabbat morning services on March 14.

It also said it would be cancelling public food services and that the office would be closed until March 23. Other members of the Beth Sholom community who came into contact with the president are also in self-isolation, although as of March 11 no one else had tested positive for the coronavirus.

Other synagogues are also taking similar precautions. Beth Emeth Bais Yehuda Synagogue said in an email on March 12 that it would be cancelling most of its in-person events, meetings and programs and all of its events with food, and moving its Shabbat and weekday services to larger spaces to comply with social distance guidelines. Beth Tzedec announced that it would be pursuing similar courses of action.

A health care worker at Shaare Zedek Medical Centre, in Israel on Jan. 27.
(Yonatan Sindel/Flash90 photo)

On March 13, the Montreal Board of Rabbis sent out a statement about how their shuls are responding to the coronavirus.

“For the foreseeable future, we have cancelled all programming, and have moved all meetings and classes to online platforms,” it said.

Benjamin’s Funeral Home in Toronto added a notice to its website saying all funerals must be fewer than 200 people.

The travel industry is also feeling the squeeze from the spread of the coronavirus, as countries are closing borders and cancelling flights, and people fear travelling abroad.

Ehud Telem, president and CEO of Peerless Travel, says his travel management company has seen a 70 to 80 per cent decline in sales since the outbreak.

A significant portion of his business comes from arranging trips for people in Israel, which on March 9 announced it would put all arrivals from abroad into quarantine for two weeks.

Liberation 75, the international gathering of Holocaust survivors, their descendants and educators scheduled to take place in Toronto from May 31 to June 2 to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the end of the Holocaust, said in a statement on March 12 that the gathering is still scheduled to go ahead, but its organizers will continue monitoring the situation closely.

The Consulate General of Israel in Toronto announced it would be suspending many services on March 10, and that urgent consular services would be provided by mail.

In Montreal, the Jewish community’s normally busy spring season will be directly affected by measures announced by Quebec Premier François Legault on March 12. All indoor public events of more than 250 people will be cancelled until further notice, he said, and the government is also asking that all “non-essential” public events be voluntarily cancelled.

The Segal Centre for Performing Arts cancelled the remaining run of its production of The Times They Are a Changin’. The next play Oslo, set to open April 19, is still on for now.

And Montreal’s Federation CJA announced it is implementing a “three-week rule” regarding the scheduling of community programming, meaning it will review whether a program will go ahead three weeks prior to the scheduled date.

In Winnipeg, Chabad announced its March 18 challah bake would be moved to an online livestream. Participants can pick up challah kits, which include the necessary ingredients, a custom apron and special challah bag, from the Jewish Learning Centre on the two days preceding the bake.

The Jewish Heritage Centre’s annual “Kanee” lecture in Winnipeg, which was scheduled to take place on May 13, has been postponed.

On March 13, the Government of Manitoba mandated all schools close from March 23 to April 10, but to remain open the week of March 16. Winnipeg’s Gray Academy recommended parents keep their children home if they feel more comfortable doing so. Teachers met on March 15 to figure out a plan to teach students at home.

On March 12, around 1,200 people attended the annual Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada Holocaust Symposium for high school students, and the night before, around 200 people viewed the premiere of Yolanda Papini-Pollock’s new documentary about Holocaust education at Berney Theatre.

In Vancouver, synagogues began cancelling events after Purim. A public speaking competition scheduled for March 12 at the local JCC was cancelled, as was the NCSY Purim party on the same night. Vancouver Talmud Torah (VTT) school remains open as of March 13, although a Grade 6 Shabbaton was cancelled.

King David High School in Vancouver is following the updates from the BC Ministry of Education, and has a professional day March 16 to review its distance learning plan.

In Hamilton, Temple Anshe Shalom broadcast Shabbat services and classes online, Adas Israel cancelled its daily minyan and Beth Jacob Congregation cancelled all services.

The Hamilton Jewish Federation cancelled all events and programs for April. As of March 15, Hamilton Hebrew Academy is remaining open, although students who travelled abroad are asked to stay away from school for two weeks. Kehila Heschel Jewish Community Day School shut down and will use online learning packages.

In Jerusalem, at the Rothstein International School (RIS) at Hebrew University, most international students are electing to stay at the school, said Noam Shoval, provost of the RIS, in an email to The CJN. In Israel, all university courses were moved online, meaning students who choose to go home can still complete their courses. Shoval said the dormitories at the school are still open, and that Hebrew University has delayed the start of the spring semester by a week, to March 22.


With files from Janice Arnold, Myron Love, Lauren Kramer and Steve Arnold