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COVID-19 nightmare ignites Canadian Jewry




At the time, under Canada’s lockdown measures, only five people could attend the funeral held on the eve of the holiday, with Reitman’s mother having no choice but to watch her brother’s funeral via Zoom.

For the past three months, Canadian citizens have lived under a challengingly restrictive lockdown, few of them untouched by the medical, psychological, or financial implications of the rampant virus.

While the Canadian Jewish community is no exception, its members maintain a sense of defiant optimism.

“I don’t think we can see the light at the end of the tunnel just yet,” said Reitman, the co-chairperson of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), the advocacy arm of the Jewish Federations of Canada.

“They’re talking of a second wave, of opening the economy up in steps. Life isn’t going to be like it was pre-COVID-19 for a long time, but negativity isn’t an option. Shrivel up and die? Not a chance.”

Reitman this week outlined to the SA Jewish Report the reality faced by Canadian Jewry, recounting how lockdown began in March this year, and effectively brought life to a standstill. To date, more than 90 000 cases of the virus have been identified in Canada, with 48 000 resolved and 7 200 deaths.

“It’s been a surreal experience,” he said. “In Canada, we have a March school break during which many people take a vacation, and most of us were abroad at the time in North America.” Reitman and his family were also on holiday, and came home early owing to talk of an impending lockdown at home, returning to Toronto only a day before the country shut down on 14 March.

“When they announced the closure of the American border, it really hit us,” Reitman said. “It’s the longest border in the world, and it has never once been closed in the years since Canada became a federation. We couldn’t quite come to terms with it.”

Closer to home, Jewish centres and shuls were also ordered to close immediately, with authorities clamping down on the number of people who could attend an essential religious gathering. It was for this reason that Reitman’s uncle’s funeral was severely restricted.

“My uncle was 82,” said Reitman. “He passed away alone in hospital, without any of his family around him. We watched his funeral on Zoom. It was one of the most difficult and gut-wrenching experiences I’ve endured.

“A rabbi, two gravediggers, and only two family members could attend. It drove home for all us just how personal this virus really is. It’s more than just a statistic – it’s real.”

In spite of the emotional upheaval, Reitman remained committed to his community, working with CIJA to mitigate the devastating effects of the virus on the wider Jewish community as much as possible.

“While we had to close our offices, CIJA was very much part of advocating for help from the government for our community,” said Reitman. “We ensured money flowed through from major charities and was being received directly by people in need.”

The process has required ongoing conversation with political leadership, encouraging the involvement of various levels of government in assisting the Jewish community where possible. Reitman said that CIJA had engaged in several round-table meetings with local, provincial, and federal leadership to make sure that the Jewish community continued to be heard.

“We want them to know what our community’s needs are on a general and individual basis,” said Reitman. “It’s vital to ensure that our community feels engaged in what is happening and that it’s heard at different levels.”

Reitman has also strived to assist those in need beyond the Jewish community, donating supplies to foodbanks and raising funds wherever possible.

“Let’s face it, this isn’t just touching our Jewish communities, but hundreds across the country. Toronto had a special campaign asking those who could to give a little more when necessary, and it has been so unbelievable to see people in our community take out their wallets and help others in spite of the circumstances.

“COVID-19 knows no rules, borders, or protocols. If it wants to attack, it will. Until a vaccine is developed, things will be pretty locked down and people will need to help others. It looks like they’re aware of the need, and great things are being done.”

After almost 12 weeks of lockdown, Canada is slowly beginning to reopen certain sectors, with certain retailers and sports facilities opened with certain restrictions this past week. As in any country, the challenges include the fact that mask wearing, limited exercise regimes, and travel bans are the new norm.

“Many of the buildings in Toronto are skyscrapers with as many as 90 floors,” said Reitman. “Our son works in one of them, and can wait as long as hour for an elevator to ride up because only two people are allowed inside at a time. Issues like this are making adapting very difficult.”

He said local government was taking the threat of the virus very seriously. “If you’re caught on a park bench with people, or are seen walking too close together with them, police can issue you with a ticket and a C$1 500 [R18 782] fine. They warn you first, but they’ve already issued plenty to people who don’t follow the rules.”

The limitations have been especially hard on the elderly, Reitman said. “My in-laws are in their 90s, alone, and very depressed. They can’t see their children or grandchildren. Realistically speaking, this could be the last year of their lives, and we want to make the most of the time we have with them as a family at a Shabbos meal or family gathering. Zoom just isn’t the same.”

Nevertheless, Reitman emphasised that the Jewish community was determined to come out of this with positivity.

“It’s been hard to cancel simchas, see businesses close, and people losing jobs,” he said. “Everyone has felt it. However, Jews are resilient and can roll with the punches. We’ve been through so many horrendous situations in our history, and yet constantly emerge full of life and strength. We’ll come out this time as well.”

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