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COVID-19 killed a man in this ultra-Orthodox religious community. Now his neighbours are changing the way they live

COVID-19 killed a man in this ultra-Orthodox religious community. Now his neighbours are changing the way they live
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MONTREAL—There is a silence in the streets of Outremont, the Montreal neighbourhood that is home to thousands of ultra-Orthodox Hasidic Jews.

It’s been this way for some time. But the death this week of a 67-year-old man from COVID-19 has underscored the virulence of the virus and the particular hazards for this insular and close-knit religious community.

The deceased man, who had a history of cardiac problems, noticed the first symptoms of the coronavirus last Sunday. He only sought medical treatment two days later.

“On Tuesday he was sitting with his kids, kidding around. On Wednesday, he was gone,” said Alex Werzberger, a spokesperson for Montreal’s Hasidic community.

“It’s a very difficult period not only for Jews, but for humanity.”

Much of the world is chafing under government-imposed lockdowns, which has meant lost jobs and incomes. The ultra-Orthodox Jews of Outremont, who account for about a quarter of the neighbourhood’s 25,000 person population, are facing these same challenges while also struggling to adapt their lives and religious obligations to the restrictions intended to limit the novel coronavirus threat.

The death this week followed the religious holiday of Purim in early March, which often brings together Hasidic families in Montreal with relatives in New York. On March 16, there was also a Hasidic wedding in Montreal which drew family members from the United States. One of the parents of the married couple was later diagnosed with COVID-19, Radio-Canada reported.

Quebec’s public health director, Dr. Horracio Arruda, said on Friday that the source of the 67-year-old man’s infection was still under investigation. Even if it was known, he said privacy considerations prevent him from revealing the information.

“But it’s for this reason that we say that gatherings and funerals and all that stuff is a factor,” Arruda said.

Within the Hasidic community, Max Lieberman has been transmitting this message for more than two weeks through a special coronavirus committee to raise awareness and organize help for those in need.

“One of the biggest obstacles we found was the language and the lack of TVs in the Hasidic community,” said the member of the Council of Hasidic Jews of Quebec. Most speak Yiddish and English, but not French, the language used by the Quebec government for public communications.

The 25-member Hasidic COVID-19 committee started spreading the message about the need to wash hands and keep a safe distance from others. It warned about the risk of travel to and from New York even before the Canada-U.S. border was closed. It also set up a hotline that people could call for information and assistance and, earlier this month, helped organize the closure of Hasidic schools and synagogues.

Werzberger, who lives on the main floor of a duplex, is 10 days into a self-imposed quarantine, cut off from his daughter, son-in-law and their seven children, who live upstairs.

“I don’t want to get sick. I’m what you would call an ‘elderly gentleman.’ I’m over 70, so I don’t need (the virus).”

He said he misses the gatherings at the synagogue. Prayers, which normally require a quorum of 10 men aged 13 and older, are not only discouraged but prohibited under provincial rules that prevent large gatherings.

“Getting together in the synagogue is probably the best way of spreading the disease,” Werzberger said. “The prayer services and all the other Jewish laws are being maintained — but in the house.”

In just over a week, Jews in quarantine and lockdown will be confined as they celebrate Passover, the religious holiday that marks the liberation of the Jews from slavery.

The website of Montreal’s Chabad Chai Jewish Community Centre is filled with advice on how to mark the occasion in the midst of a coronavirus outbreak. There is a religious reminder that Passover is a “blessed respite from digital connectivity.”

That means no long-distance phone calls to family, no Skype connections at the dinner table, no Zoom reunions.

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“I have three married kids who were going to be at my seder and I now know they won’t. Everybody’s going to make it on their own. And the whole preparation is very hard because you rely a lot on shops and stores to be open and they’re all closed now,” said Lieberman.

The threat of infection has forced Hasidic Jews to upend lives that are guided by the Torah, the religious book that spells out their obligations and prohibitions, from eating kosher foods to not driving cars on the Sabbath.

“But the most important thing is the health,” Lieberman said. “When it comes to saving a life, all that goes out of the window.”
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