Dispatches: Montreal synagogues weigh whether to require proof of vaccinations to attend services

Cantor Daniel Benlolo of Montreal's Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue blows the shofar.

While larger synagogues grappled with the issue of requiring worshippers to be vaccinated, in July two small congregations that share a building in suburban Laval declared in no uncertain terms that anyone entering would have to be fully vaccinated.

Issie Baum, president of Young Israel of Chomedey, which rents space from Congregation Shaar Shalom, said the decision was obvious: the great majority of their combined 250 members are over age 75.

The elderly were nervous about attending services even though public health rules on physical distancing, masking and sanitizing were being strictly enforced, he said.

Members were required to register their government-issued vaccination proof with synagogue administrators, and security guards at the door have been verifying each person’s status.

A similar vaccine mandate policy is now widespread among Montreal synagogues in advance of the High Holidays. What only a few weeks ago may have been seen as an infringement on privacy has become more acceptable with 77 per cent of Quebecers fully vaccinated and the province’s introduction of vaccine “passports” on Sept. 1, although they are not needed for places of worship.

Since June 28, Quebec has been in the green zone, the lowest-level of vigilance on the colour-coded alert system.

In this fourth wave, daily new cases are trending up to 600, not seen since May and far higher than in August 2020. Congregations are mindful of the possibility of a sudden tightening of the rules, as happened last year.

Places of worship can admit a maximum of 250 people per building with distancing of at least one metre between those not from the same household. Masks are obligatory, but may be removed when seated or silent.

Up to 500 people are permitted outdoors.

Many synagogues are maintaining more stringent measures, such as keeping capacity below the limit and requiring masks at all times.

The situation is much easier and clearer than during last year’s High Holidays, when Quebec and the Montreal area in particular—the “epicentre” of the pandemic in Canada—was rapidly descending into a second wave, causing uncertainty and confusion.

Worshippers emerged from Rosh Hashanah services to learn that Montreal had gone from yellow to orange, slashing the capacity maximum from 250 to 25.

Several synagogues did the unimaginable and cancelled Yom Kippur services.

Among those congregations requiring proof of double vaccination, which means barring children under 12 who are ineligible for the shots, is the city’s largest, Shaar Hashomayim. As it is Orthodox, online programming is pre-recorded.

Another large congregation, the Reform Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom is scheduling both limited in-person services at Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, as well as full livestreaming. The temple only resumed in-person Shabbat services in August.

Rabbi Lisa Grushcow said the utmost is being done to enable members to attend at least one in-person service over the holidays.

The Conservative Shaare Zion Beth-El Congregation is also offering some live-streamed services. Congregants attending in person are advised to have photo identification ready as security guards will be checking a list of those who got their second shot no later than Aug. 23.

With kids under 12 barred, the congregation is holding outdoor family events throughout September and October.

The president of the Orthodox Congregation Beth Ora is appealing to congregants for patience and understanding. Nadine Anders warns that there may be lineups while guards and volunteers process each person’s vaccination status before they enter.

Rabbi Anthony Knopf will blow the shofar in a nearby park so that everyone, including children, can participate in the spirit of the season, if not its prayers.

Another Orthodox shul, Adath Israel Congregation, is holding three of four Rosh Hashanah services on each day outside in a tent, but the double-vaccination rule equally applies there.

Programming for the under-12s is offered in space in the building that has a separate entrance.

The honour system is in effect at Congregation Beth Israel Beth Aaron, also Orthodox. “We are requiring full vaccination, but we are not asking for proof, certainly not from longstanding members of 30 years,” said Rabbi Reuben Poupko, who noted there has never been a COVID outbreak traced to services at a major synagogue, which he attributes to adherence to government rules and common sense.

He plans to conduct five services on each day of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur indoors and in a tent. “Due to the uptick in cases, we are anticipating fewer people than we were a few weeks ago. With the Delta variant there is a perception that the risk is greater. People are cautious.”

The Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, after much debate, decided to allow children under 12 at services, but they must take a rapid COVID test provided at the synagogue free of charge.

A private clinic will administer the tests during the day of each holiday eve in a hall that has a separate entrance, Cantor Daniel Benlolo said.

The synagogue is “strongly encouraging” all attendees to be double vaccinated but not asking for any proof.

Benlolo said there was a range of views among synagogue leaders, but it was decided enforcing vaccination proof was too much of an intrusion, and making everyone get tested too expensive.

“It was felt that kids under 12 were the most vulnerable group being unvaccinated and having returned to school. We hope that everyone else will be responsible about getting vaccinated,” he said.

This week The CJN’s reporters will be reporting on how communities across the country will be celebrating the High Holidays.