Queen’s University Chabad is facing questions over apparent lack of COVID safety measures

Students praying in the tent at Chabad Student Centre in Kingston, Ont. on Sept. 10. (Credit: Chabad Student Centre, Facebook)

A Chabad emissary at Queen’s University is being criticized by another rabbi in Kingston, Ont., for holding outdoor events without masking and social distancing requirements.

In a letter to university principal Patrick Deane, Beth Israel Congregation’s Rabbi Erin Polansky says the Chabad events put the health of students and the entire community at risk.

Rabbi Polansky added her concern is especially acute as the festival of Sukkot approaches—traditionally marked by Chabad with large gatherings and meals in its sukkah.

“I’m really concerned about what’s going to be spread then,” Rabbi Polansky said in an interview with The CJN. “Kingston has been largely untouched by COVID, but cases are rising because students have come back.”

Rabbi Polansky said she wants the school to demand that Chabad Rabbi Yisroel Simon operate by the same COVID-fighting standards as the rest of the institution, or to strip Chabad of its on-campus privileges.

“As leaders we should do more to fight COVID, but he won’t even do the minimum,” she said. “He just doesn’t seem to be taking this seriously. As leaders we have to model good behaviour.”

In her letter to Deane, Rabbi Polansky said even though Chabad events are now being held in a tent, that doesn’t remove her fears about the spread of the virus.

“It has come to my attention that the Rabbi of Chabad of Kingston, his wife and children are not vaccinated. This is of particular concern right now because we are in the midst of our Holy Days and Chabad is regularly convening large groups of people,” Rabbi Polansky wrote to the university administration. “Though they have erected a tent on their property, they are not maintaining physical distancing or masking; there is lots of touching, and even the blowing of a shofar… through which this unvaccinated rabbi is potentially infecting hundreds of students.”

Some of those students, she added, teach in her shul’s religious school, or go into public schools, restaurants and businesses around the city, potentially carrying the virus with them.

“He thinks he’s outside so he’s safe, but he isn’t,” she said.

On her Facebook page, Rabbi Polansky said she had reached out to Rabbi Simon directly, before sending the letter to the university, asking him to make his vaccination status public so students could make an informed decision.

When asked for comment, Rabbi Simon referred to a statement posted to his Facebook page. Rabbi Simon said his events are held in full compliance with federal regulations. Attendance requires pre-registration and masks are available for people who want them even when events are held outside.

Rabbi Simon added that while he was initially hesitant to take the COVID vaccine, or to see his wife and the oldest of his eight children receive it, he has now had a first dose and will receive a second before vaccination becomes required at Queen’s.

“When the new COVID vaccines initially became available, I had some questions and concerns. I opted to wait for more information and data to become available about these brand-new vaccines before making an informed decision about my health,” Rabbi Simon wrote. “Ultimately, based on the science—the data as well as consultation with my doctors—I chose to get vaccinated and will be fully vaccinated well before Queen’s University mandates it.”

He also wondered why Rabbi Polansky’s concerns were aimed only at his Jewish programming, ignoring the chance that students could become infected in their lecture halls and other activities because the school’s vaccine mandate does not come into force until Oct. 15.

Hillel, the on-campus group for post-secondary students, is also imposing rules on events on all its Ontario campuses.

Under those rules, all indoor events are capped at 25 participants. Outdoor events are capped at 100. Masks are required at all indoor events and encouraged for outdoor programs. People attending indoor events will be required to show proof they’ve been double vaccinated. Finally, all participants will be required to complete COVID-19 pre-screening forms, Hillel Ontario said in an email to The CJN.

Hillel has also imposed a mandatory vaccination policy on its professional staff.

A university spokesperson did not respond to requests for comment by deadline.