Quebec Hasidic schools that defy closure order risk legal consequences: Education Minister Jean-François Roberge

School buses lined up on de l’Epée Street in Montreal on Jan. 9, 2022, despite a provincial order to close schools to stop the spread of COVID.

The Quebec government is in a standoff with some Hasidic communities as they continue to defy the order that all schools in the province remain closed at least until Jan. 17.

Several Hasidic schools, including those of the larger Belz and Skver communities, have continued to operate, apparently without interruption, since the government instituted the shutdown of elementary and high schools as of Dec. 17.

The earlier than normal closure before the holidays and its extension beyond the scheduled break is intended to slow the soaring surge in COVID cases in Quebec. Schools were told to switch to online instruction from Jan. 3 onward.

Education Minister Jean-François Roberge warned that he may seek a court injunction to force the non-conforming schools closed. He affirmed on Jan. 7 that no exception has been made for ultra-Orthodox schools and that they are acting illegally.

Police have already visited schools to remind them of the rules and, in some instances, written up statements that were referred to the prosecutor’s office to decide if infractions have occurred and fines will be imposed.

The communities maintain that a close reading of the decree shows that they are not breaking the law and that they are not looking for special treatment. The Jewish Hasidic Council of Quebec said the children can go to school because the great majority of their families do not have an internet connection at home for religious reasons and therefore cannot follow the directive to learn remotely.

Roberge said not having internet is not an excuse. The only dispensation extended is to outlying regions where internet is unavailable.

Furthermore, the Council said the government decree speaks of children with learning difficulties or special needs being allowed in-person instruction, and “We believe that the students in our communities fall into those categories.”

It added that the schools comply with public health directives, such as masking and physical distancing, so the environment is safe.

The Council also notes that Hasidic schools do not normally take a break from late December to early January, like other schools.

For some years, many Hasidic children have been homeschooled in the mandatory secular subjects, under the supervision of the English Montreal School Board. This was an arrangement imposed by the government because Hasidic schools were not adequately teaching such subjects, their concentration being on religious studies.

The schools, located in the Outremont and Mile End areas, have made no secret of their operation.

A Van Horne Avenue resident told The CJN, “This morning I witnessed several school buses on de l’Epée Street picking up groups of Hasidic children, standing very close together, all unmasked, entering their school bus on their way to school…

“I have been an educator for over 40 years. As far as I am concerned, the health and welfare of Quebec society as a whole cannot be jeopardized by any group of people disobeying the law in the name of education. Surely staying alive and not overwhelming our hospitals has to be much more important than in-person schooling.”

She was so disturbed by “this act of civil disobedience” that she called the police, and emailed Outremont borough councillor Mindy Pollak, who is Hasidic, with a copy to Premier François Legault.

The schools are not getting sympathy from Mitch Garber, a well-known business figure and co-chair of Federation CJA’s current Community Recovery and Resilience Campaign.

In response to a social media post by an apparently non-Jewish person dismayed by what he saw, Garber tweeted in French: “It’s unacceptable, period. As a member of the Jewish community, I can say that this sect of Jews represents a tiny part with which the rest of us have very little contact despite our efforts.

“The law is the law. It applies to everyone.”

The attention the schools have received, particularly from the French media, was deplored by Hasidic tweeter Lieby Lewin as “harassment.”

A posting to Twitter by the anonymous @OutremontHassid observed that when a TVA crew “illegally intruded” at her school, his third-grade daughter was working on a history project about First Nations, and doing so in French.

Rebel News reporter Yanky Pollak charged that government directives are infringing on religious freedom, “pitting” people against each other, and causing “hate and division.”

He posted an audio recording from Jan. 6 of a hostile phone call to a kosher grocery store. The unidentified caller, speaking in heavily accented English, says, “You are really stupid…You go away because it is going to be very bad for you.”

When the person taking the call says, “We aren’t going anywhere,” the man continues, using an expletive, “Go back where you are… Why you do that we don’t understand.”