Order shuttering Toronto schools lifted, religious services resume

Yeshiva Yesodei Hatorah in Toronto (Credit: Lila Sarick)

Toronto Public Health (TPH) has lifted an order that effectively prevented schools from hosting onsite religious services, meaning Orthodox day schools can return to providing prayer services and in-person religious learning.

The new rule was put in place on May 6 to limit in-person learning across all educational settings. It beefed up existing regulations to close a loophole for private and independent schools that were shut for classes under the rules, but still held religious services, sometimes from morning to mid-afternoon.

The notice was issued after reports of children entering and leaving private schools in the Bathurst Street-Lawrence Avenue area.

The order was revoked effective June 5, “as rates of COVID in our City have been on a downward trend over the past several weeks,” said a letter from TPH to school principals, teachers and administrators.

Revocation of the order “comes as a welcome relief to religious officials, who have abided closely to public health regulations throughout the pandemic,” said a statement from Yeshiva Yesodei Hatorah (YYH) on Glen Rush Boulevard.

YYH reopened on the morning of June 7 for religious services—prayers and learning—according to a statement from the school.

It said that the yeshiva will “continue to adhere closely to restrictions on social distancing and maintaining groups of 10 or less.”

Withdrawal of the regulation means that a court case launched last month by YYH against the Ontario government and Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health will not need to be heard.

The yeshiva sought to have the regulation struck down under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, arguing it treated its students differently than other institutions that are permitted to host religious services.

YYH had argued for an injunction permitting it to open for religious services in multiple gatherings of up to 10 people in its building in North York.

A similar legal challenge was launched last month by Bnos Bais Yaakov High School for girls in the Bathurst-Lawrence area. It too alleged that the order barring it from opening for religious services breached students’ and staff’s freedom of religion.

The school claimed that the regulation breached students’ rights “not to be subjected to cruel and unusual treatment” by prohibiting school attendance.

Like YYH, Bnos Bais Yaakov’s action claimed that because students and staff shun internet access and smartphones, remote learning “is simply not an option.”

As of June 7, Bnos Bais Yaakov’s motion for interim relief was stayed but its application is continuing, according to one of the school’s lawyers, Yigal Rifkind.

Meantime, students at YYH suffered under the regulation that closed it for prayer and religious instruction, the yeshiva said.

“Without the worship and religious practices they have known since their infancy, our children have been suffering and adrift,” said YYH executive director Rabbi Binyamin Septon. “While we feel tremendous empathy for all parents and children who have been affected by the pandemic school lockdown, one can well imagine how much added disconnection and trauma our children feel when their intense religious life is wrenched away from them.”

Earlier this spring, YYH and two other Orthodox day schools, Bais Yaakov Elementary School on Saranac Boulevard and Bais Yaakov High School on Lawrence Ave. West, were reported to TPH by Toronto city councillor Mike Colle for alleged violations of COVID restrictions following complaints from constituents of steady streams of students and cars arriving and leaving.

In April, a letter from Rabbi Daniel Korobkin of Beth Avraham Yoseph of Toronto Congregation in Thornhill and Rabbi Chaim Strauchler of Shaarei Shomayim Congregation urged Orthodox Jews to comply with public health regulations, which, the rabbis argued, take precedence over almost all religious rules.

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