The Quebec government’s closure of all places of worship in the province as of Dec. 31 is an “overreach” and “epidemiologically indefensible,” according to Rabbi Reuben Poupko, who represents the Jewish community on the inter-religious committee that acts as a consultative body to officials.
“Nowhere else in North America or Europe, with the possible exception of Austria, have places of worship been shut down,” said Poupko. “This anomaly has to be justified, but it can’t be because there is no logical explanation.”
The measure is among additional restrictions announced by Premier François Legault on Dec. 30, including the return of a nightly curfew, aimed at stemming the galloping surge in COVID-19 cases. Daily new cases, driven by the Omicron variant, reached nearly 15,000—more than five times what it was when the government imposed a curfew last January. Hospitalizations doubled in the previous week alone.
The closure is for an indefinite period; the only exception is funerals, which places of worship can accommodate for up to 25 people.
“This is not March 2020,” said Poupko, spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Israel Beth Aaron. “A lot more is known about COVID and we all know how to behave to take care of ourselves.” Mainstream synagogues have been scrupulous in following public health guidelines, he said, often going beyond what was required. He is not aware of a single case of the virus being transmitted within a synagogue.
Gatherings in homes are also prohibited; previously up to 10 people or two household bubbles could meet.
Places of worship were closed for the first three months of the pandemic and again at the start of the first curfew on Jan. 9, 2021. In response to objections from faith groups, including the Hasidic community which threatened legal action, the ban was lifted by ministerial decree 12 days later. Places of worship were then allowed a 10-person maximum.
In recent months, the limit was 250, as long as distancing and masking was observed. On Dec. 20, places of worship for the first time were required to obtain from all those over age 13 proof of full vaccination, namely, the government-issued QR code-bearing “passports,” as well as not exceed 50 percent capacity.
“It’s bewildering that the government believes it is safer to go to Walmart than to shul,” Poupko said. “For many people worship is as essential as commerce.”
Nevertheless, Poupko said the Jewish community leadership continues to urge compliance with all government directives, “as painful as this is.”
Some synagogues had already switched back to online services (outside of Shabbat, if Orthodox) before the latest restrictions.
Whether the Hasidic communities will be so compliant remains to be seen. In February, the Quebec Council of Hasidic Jews won its legal challenge over whether the 10-person cap meant per synagogue or per each room in the building with an exterior entrance, as had been condoned.
A Superior Court judge decided that, due to the vagueness of the rules, it was the latter, but Premier Legault later stipulated that it was 10 per address.
The council said it would make no comment until it sees the decree on the latest restrictions, which officially came into effect at 5 p.m. Dec. 31.
The main Jewish funeral home, Paperman & Sons, as of Dec. 22, once again ceased holding in-person funerals. In November it had opened chapels to up to 80 attendees. Now, only private graveside funerals are held for no more than 25 invited people.
The restrictions also delay the reopening of schools for another week to Jan. 17. COVID is widespread in schools, and, on Dec. 22, active cases were reported at Solomon Schechter Academy, Akiva School, Jewish People’s and Peretz Schools, Ecole Maimonide, Herzliah High School, and Hebrew Academy.
Some parents at nine Jewish schools are among those from 113 private schools who have signed on to a class-action lawsuit bid to recoup fees for the time their children were not in school due to COVID-related shutdowns.
The latest restrictions are being felt elsewhere in the community. The Sylvan Adams YM-YWHA, like all other gyms, has been shuttered since Dec. 20. Over the past six months, it gradually returned to full operations after having decided to remain closed since the pandemic was declared.
The Segal Centre for Performing Arts, dark since Dec. 20 as well, was fortunate that its last in-person show was able to run until its final curtain on Dec. 19.
The Segal had the foresight to offer both in-person and online options for its next production, Pandemish, a new confection by the comedy duo YidLife Crisis, scheduled to run Jan. 22-30.
At Maimonides Geriatric Centre, there is a small COVID outbreak: according to government data, three active cases among its 382 residents. The long-term care institution is now on the “yellow” level watch list.
Officials say it is being contained. Almost all residents received a third booster shot this past fall.
Meanwhile, Federation CJA has put out a renewed call for volunteers to help the vulnerable in the community facing isolation or hardship, especially the elderly, such as getting groceries or making phone calls. Its assistance line remains open at 514-734-1411.