Toronto yeshiva takes province and city to court over lockdown

Yeshiva Yesodei Hatorah in Toronto (Credit: Lila Sarick)

A Toronto yeshiva is taking the Ontario government and Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health to court, alleging that COVID restrictions have harmed the religious rights of students.

In legal documents filed May 20 at the Ontario Superior Court of Justice, Yeshiva Yesodei Hatorah (YYH) and a representative student seek to have the lockdown restrictions struck down under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The case centres on religious services and internet use.

In a 24-page legal notice, YYH argues that the religious and equality rights of students and parents were violated by a provincial lockdown regulation and a “one-size-fits-all” public health order “hastily imposed earlier this month that failed to recognize the impossibility of providing adequate remote education and religious services to its unique school population.”

YYH describes itself as “highly Orthodox in its orientation” and only children from families who accept the school’s “rigorous adherence to religious principles and practices are eligible to attend.”

Parents of YYH students reject the internet because it provides “explicit, immoral and destructive material that threatens the core belief system YYH seeks to instill in its students,” the yeshiva argues.

When registering each year, YYH families are required to sign an “internet contract,” which refers to the internet as a “destructive and negative influence in the Jewish home,” the legal filing explains.

Because of this “bedrock” belief, YYH says it cannot deliver its religious program through internet-based learning platforms such as Zoom or Google Meet.

Thus, YYH students are “at a tremendous disadvantage in that the only form of remote learning available to them—telephone—is a grossly inadequate substitute.”

The private school, on Glen Rush Boulevard, has 445 school-aged children and 225 children in its daycare and kindergarten-aged program. It says staff have “consistently expressed an overwhelming desire throughout the pandemic to teach and provide religious services in-person.”

In effect, current lockdown restrictions “require children to lose all meaningful access to religious services and observance in order to uphold core teachings and beliefs,” the yeshiva argues.

Toronto Public Health (TPH) imposed the new regulation effective May 10. It beefed up older rules in what appeared to be a move to close the loophole for schools that shut for classes but still held religious services.

Although religious services were not specifically mentioned, the order was needed to address “other types of student gatherings” that do not qualify as teaching or instruction, and to stop pupils “from congregating indoors, in enclosed spaces, for extended periods,” TPH said.

The yeshiva and two other Orthodox day schools were reported to TPH last month by Toronto city councillor Mike Colle (Ward 8) for alleged violations of COVID restrictions, following complaints from constituents of steady streams of students and cars arriving in the morning and leaving in the afternoon.

YYH says it was subject to intense media scrutiny and complaints from “uninformed community members.” It said that on April 18, five police cars showed up at the school.

The yeshiva’s filing notes that daily group prayers are a “fundamental component of Orthodox Jewish education.” Prior to the most recent restrictions, the school was conducting religious services to students in gatherings of 10, operating on a reduced schedule, “and in full compliance with the law.”

The new order treats the yeshiva and its students differently than other institutions that are permitted to host religious services, YYH argues.

In part, the yeshiva is seeking an injunction permitting it to open for religious services in multiple gatherings of up to 10 people in the building and on the property, and prohibiting the Ontario and Toronto governments from interfering.

It said the case is expected to be heard “within weeks, on an urgent basis.”

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