UJA Suspends Partnership With School Over COVID Breach; Rabbis Pen Letter on Adherence

Rabbis Daniel Korobkin, left, and Chaim Strauchler/CJN File Photo

UJA Federation of Greater Toronto has suspended its partnership with a local Jewish day school for continuing to operate in-person classes in violation of COVID restrictions.

At the same time, two Toronto-area rabbis have admonished their Orthodox followers to follow regulations on COVID.

UJA isn’t divulging which school has been suspended from among the 16 day schools under its umbrella. The CJN is endeavoring to find out, and will update this story as needed.

“The vast majority of day schools have been exemplary in adhering to public health regulations – often going above and beyond guidelines,” Daniel Held, executive director of the Julia and Henry Koschitzky Centre for Jewish Education, told The CJN in an emailed statement on April 12.

“However, last week, UJA Federation learned that one of our affiliated day schools continued to operate in-person classes even after Toronto Public Health ordered all schools in the city to cease doing so. As a result, UJA immediately notified the school that our partnership agreement with them is now suspended,” Held wrote.

Asked what a suspension of relations means in practical terms, including funding, Held replied, “Our relationship with affiliated schools includes funding and a wide range of other supports for school leaders. Schools which are unaffiliated – or suspended from affiliation – do not receive these supports.”

UJA remains “in ongoing conversation with the school in question, with the hope and expectation that the school will take steps to comply with all public health measures,” he added.

Meantime, an extraordinary letter from Rabbi Daniel Korobkin of Beth Avraham Yoseph of Toronto Congregation in Thornhill and Rabbi Chaim Strauchler of Shaarei Shomayim Congregation tells their fellow Orthodox Jews that government and medical rules on COVID supersede almost all religious concerns.

The rabbis wrote they are seeing “fissures” in the Orthodox community.

“Some families and institutions have chosen to violate the municipal orders and medical protocols to close or limit our schools and shuls. They have taken the position that ‘Da’as Torah’ (knowledge of Torah) dictates that we are not required to heed the governmental rules when it comes to matters of religious observance, especially Talmud Torah for our children, which is ‘kodesh kodoshim’ – supremely sacrosanct.”

That argument is valid for several reasons, they note, including because “our children’s education is the key to the future of Klal Yisrael (Jewish peoplehood).”

As well, people perceive that the government “has not earned high grades in their handling of the pandemic. Many contradictory rules have been issued, and there seem to be a lot of hypocrisy and arbitrariness in the formulation of some of these regulations. Finally, the medical data isn’t even conclusive regarding whether or not closing our religious educational facilities will actually curtail the spread of the disease. Taking these arguments together, there seems to be legitimacy to this approach of ignoring the law and keeping our schools open.”

Even so, and despite “the often draconian nature of government safety regulations, they were not formulated to persecute Jews, nor to collectively punish Canadians,” the rabbis continued. “Rather, they were formulated in consultation with medical experts whose sole objective is to save lives and reduce the number of patients in the ICU. You may not agree with their conclusions and that is your right. But even if there’s a possibility that these new laws will curtail the spread of infection, we halakhically rule that ‘safek pikuach nefesh’ (the principle that the preservation of human life overrides virtually any other religious rule)…overrides almost all other halakhic concerns.”

The rabbis said the letter was sent out to their congregants and posted online.

“In addition to being part of the Jewish people, we are also part of Canada and Ontario,” they wrote. “As Jews, we must strive to be a ‘light unto the nations’ and model behavior for which the response of the nations of the world will be the statement.

“Jews cannot afford to have short memories,” they wrote. “We just commemorated Yom HaShoah. We cannot afford to forget, nor can we afford to comport ourselves defiantly in the face of a benevolent government which has only shown tolerance, fairness, and chesed (kindness) to our communities.”

The rabbis said they formulated their letter with guidance from Rabbi Herschel Schachter, the noted American scholar and halachic advisor.

It asks for patience “for just a few more weeks. We are so close to an end.”

The letter was received positively but “stirred up challenges and frustrations” over the current pandemic, Rabbi Strauchler told The CJN. He said the missive was meant “to close gaps” in the Orthodox community when it comes to adherence to COVID protocols.

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