The Kiryas Tash Hasidic community, an enclave within the town of Boisbriand north of Montreal, was placed under quarantine on March 29 after a spike in confirmed cases of COVID-19 among its approximately 4,000 members.
The measure was taken in co-operation with the community’s leaders, who were worried by the growing number of cases. At that point, 19 community members had tested positive for the coronavirus, said Tash spokesperson Isaac Weiss.
It is believed they contracted the virus after travelling to New York to celebrate Purim earlier in the month before non-essential travel across the border was halted.
“We are taking extraordinary measures to prevent an outbreak in the community,” said Eric Goyer, director of public health for the Laurentians region.
The day before, community leaders had requested help from the authorities to contain the outbreak. All members went into self-isolation in their homes as of the afternoon of March 29.
A checkpoint was erected to ensure only essential services enter the part of Boisbriand were Kiryas Tash is located.
Goyer said the community has been co-operating with all other measures to avoid spreading the virus and widespread testing continues there.
Weiss said initially some community members were resisting the ban on any gatherings outside of immediate family members, despite their rabbis’ instructions.
Complying with the self-isolation and social distancing directives are not easy for the Tash Hasidim or the other Hasidic communities in Montreal due to how close-knit they are, their large families, and their absolute devotion to prayer and other religious practice.
On March 13, Quebec Premier François Legault asked that houses of worship close, which he reiterated more strongly a few days later. On March 18, the Jewish Community Council of Montreal, which comprises the beit din, ordered all shuls, community centres and schools to shut down.
The synagogues in Kiryas Tash have been closed since then, Weiss said.
The health authorities and local police say they are there to help the community during the quarantine, such as by ensuring it has sufficient food and medications.
Goyer warned against any stigmatization of the Hasidim.
On March 25, a 67-year-old Hasidic man who lived in the borough of Outremont was the first person in Montreal to die from the virus. Max Lieberman, a spokesperson for the Council of Hasidic Jews of Quebec, said he became ill on March 22 and was admitted to hospital the day before he died.
He said the father of 10 children had been healthy prior to that.
TheYeshivaWorld.com identified him as Harav Avraham Yechiel Kraus.
In keeping with Quebec government directives, his funeral was held privately graveside and attended by about a dozen immediate relatives, said Lieberman. Otherwise, this well-regarded man’s rites would have drawn hundreds, he added.
Hasidic leaders are strictly enforcing compliance through a committee set up specifically for that purpose.
Men can be seen praying from their balconies in groupings of 10, allowing them to form minyanim at a safe remove from each other.
Under the state of emergency declared by the City of Montreal, police have stepped up patrols to ensure non-essential businesses are closed and there are no gatherings.
Although fines are possible, for now the police are issuing warnings.
Elsewhere in the Montreal Jewish community, Côte St-Luc and Hampstead, among other West End districts, have been identified by health officials as “hot spots” for confirmed cases on the Island of Montreal.
Anticipating such a scenario, the Côte St-Luc city council invoked a state of emergency on March 17 and, a few days later, Mayor Mitchell Brownstein asked the province to consider placing the city of 34,000 under quarantine if the situation warranted it.
Brownstein called his municipality with its high proportion of seniors, including hundreds of returning snowbirds, and seven synagogues plus several small Jewish congregations, where large events had been held in recent weeks, “a bad cocktail that is going to explode.”
On March 29, a drive-through testing clinic opened in the parking lot of Côte St-Luc’s Cavendish Mall. Open from 8 a.m.-8 p.m. by appointment, the clinic can screen up to 400 people a day.
At that time, health authorities said at least 50 cases of the disease had been confirmed in Côte St-Luc.
By contrast, Mayor Bill Steinberg of neighbouring Hampstead (pop. 7,100) was downplaying things, claiming in a post on the town’s website that the severity of the situation in Montreal was being blown out of proportion by the media. “They always assume the worst in order to have the most dramatic story.”
One of the first Côte St-Luc residents to fall ill lived at the King David assisted-living facility.
He attended a large wedding at Congregation Shaar Hashomayim on March 12, the day Premier Legault asked that indoor gatherings be limited to 250 people.
Rabbi Adam Scheier explained that the request was made in the afternoon – too late to cancel the wedding, whose organizers were renting the synagogue.
No Shaar clergy were at the event, he said, and all employees present were instructed to go into self-isolation once the man’s illness had been traced.