For Jewish Quebecers, government's Christmas exception is a danger and 'disappointment'

Sari Stein hasn’t hugged her mother since March.

In the time since, she's also had to miss out on in-person celebrations for Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Passover – three major holidays celebrated by members of the Jewish community.

“I will admit that it was very painful for me,” Stein said. “It was the first time in my life I didn’t go to synagogue on the High Holidays, it was the first time in my life I didn’t see my extended family."

It's not just missing holidays, but missing the rare chances they provide to see everyone.

"I have baby cousins I haven’t even met yet," she said. "I have older relatives who I don’t know when I’ll next see.”

So for Stein, when the Quebec government announced on Thursday that Quebecers would be allowed to gather for Christmas next month – in the middle of worryingly high COVID-19 case numbers in the second wave of the pandemic – it was a bit of a slap in the face.

“It belittles the pain that the rest of us have gone through not being able to see our families or celebrate our traditions,” Stein said.

“It’s difficult on all of us, but the feeling that there’s a ‘nous’ and a ‘vous’ in Quebec… My family has been here for four generations, five generations, but it doesn’t seem to matter because according to the Legault government, the only people who matter are Christians.”

When asked at Thursday's announcement what message the government’s holiday schedule sends to religious minority communities in Quebec, Legault responded that the decision was made to please as many people as possible.

“We think that we can permit gatherings during four days,” he said. “So where do we put those four days? I know that some people – they prefer to celebrate the New Year than celebrating Christmas.”

The province’s Director of Public Health, Dr. Horacio Arruda, said the government considered permitting gatherings for two days for Hanukkah and two days for Christmas, but ultimately decided that a consecutive four-day period was best logistically, since Quebecers are being asked to quarantine for seven days before and seven days after the gathering period. 

“I feel very disappointed in my province and in my society in feeling like as long as they have their holiday, they don’t really care about ours,” Stein said.

Kayla Elberg, who is also Jewish, said she wasn’t surprised by the government’s decision.

It rankled “in the same sense that people presume Hanukkah is one of Judaism's biggest holidays as it is near Christmas,” she said.

But “for our true main holidays, we had to be isolated," she said.

Many people who aren't Jewish may not realize that the biggest Jewish holidays have already passed this year, she said -- those that fall in September, aside from Passover, which happened during the first wave.

“Yom Kippur is a tremendously holy day and I would typically be in synagogue all day,” Elberg said.

“But the cases were going up, so we did what we needed to do. I am not sure why Quebec feels that others can't make this sacrifice.”

Stein added that as hard as it was to stay apart during the holidays, her community acknowledged the moral responsibility to stay home. 

“In Judaism, there is a concept that says that saving a life takes precedence over any other religious obligation," she said. "And I think this is a feeling that is widely shared among the religious communities."

'ULTIMATE HYPOCRISY' IN ERA OF SECULARISM

Both said they also see hypocrisy in a break on safety measures for a religious holiday in a province that recently passed a secularism law, banning state employees like teachers, police officers and judges from wearing religious symbols at work. 

“Francois Legault has, multiple times now, been quoted as saying he thinks the will of the majority justifies his measures against minorities,” Stein said.

“He said that on Bill 21, and he said that again here – he thinks the majority of Quebecers want to gather at Christmas so that justifies this. And that is not just faulty logic, but that’s ultimate hypocrisy," she said.

"A leader needs to be a leader of all people, not just the people who voted for him."

Stein’s partner, Ryan Partridge, comes from a family that celebrates Christmas, but he said he won’t be participating in any gatherings this year.

“It really is a slap in the face to say ‘Oh yeah, you guys had to lock down, but now that it’s our turn, we’re going to go out and party,’” he said.

"Even if they were to have made an exception for Hanukkah, that’s not a big holiday in the Jewish community," he said.

"It’s not the same thing. All other minority holidays have already passed.”

SHARED PUBLIC HEALTH HAZARDS

Stein, Elberg and Patridge also raised public health concerns, too -- concerns that will ultimately affect all Quebecers, not just Christians -- as Quebec continues to report an average of about 1,200 new COVID-19 cases per day, in addition to dozens of deaths daily.

"I’m very concerned overall with the rise in case numbers that this is inevitably going to cause," Stein said.

It shows "callousness," she said, that "this government is prepared to throw the health-care workers and frontline workers and doctors and nurses and orderlies and grocery store workers, and [fields] overwhelmingly overrepresented by minorities," into a new crisis.

"They’re the ones who are really going to have to bear the consequences of this," she added. 

Stein and Partridge are calling on Quebecers to stay home this Christmas and celebrate with their immediate families who share homes with them. 

"I hope that people who care about their families and their communities will choose not to gather," Stein said.

"I hope people will understand that the best Christmas present they can give to their families is keeping them safe." 

SIGN UP NOW

Stay up-to-date and in-the-know by subscribing to one of our newsletters