Jun 2, 2016


Canadian Jewish News
By Janice Arnold, Staff Reporter
June 2, 2016

MONTREAL – Spokespeople for the chassidic community say a June 1 intervention by the Youth Protection Department (YPD), accompanied by police, at a school suspected of operating without a government permit was unnecessary and excessive.

During the school day, about a dozen social workers from Batshaw Youth and Family Centres – apparently unannounced – came to the boys school, located in a commercial building at 6355 Park Ave. When they were refused entry, the police were called, according to reports.

The YPD has not made public why it took the action, citing confidentiality, but the education ministry confirmed that it has issued no permit for a school at that address.

“This was really overkill,” said Alex Werzberger, head of the Coalition of Outremont Chassidic Organization. “If you want to use a stronger word: terrorism.”

He said there were maybe 30 police on the scene, and the approximately 60 elementary age students were in “lockdown” for hours, “traumatizing” them. “It looked like a drug raid,” he said.

Werzberger said the school is affiliated with the Vishnitzer community and was established last year.

Although the YPD was involved, there are no allegations of abuse. It is the role of the YPD to make inquiries on behalf of the education department when students are to be interviewed.

Hershber Hirsch, a school board member, told the media the intervention was an unpleasant surprise because the school, which he did not name, had been in talks with the YPD about scheduling a visit.

On the advice of its lawyers, the school has decided to fully co-operate with the YPD’s continuing inquiry over the coming weeks, he said.

Other chassidic and haredi schools are also under the scrutiny of the education department for not complying with law, notably for failing to teach the mandatory curriculum and having unqualified teachers, but Werzberger said this is the first time an operation like this has occurred.

These schools have been under investigation by the government for at least a decade, and successive education ministers have tried to work with them to achieve compliance.

With intense coverage in the French-language media of these “illegal” schools, the Liberal government has been under pressure from the Parti Québécois and Coalition Avenir Québec to act.

Pierre Lacerte, an Outremont resident who for many years has drawn attention to alleged violations of the law by Chassidim, told the Journal de Montréal that he notified the police about the existence of this Park Avenue “clandestine” school in April 2015.

The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), which has not publicly been involved in this issue, issued a statement in the name of Quebec co-chair Rabbi Reuben Poupko.

“It is our understanding that the school in question is operating without a Ministry of Education permit and that this operation was in full compliance with the Quebec Youth Protection Act. We are confident that there are measures in place that ensure that the welfare of the children is the foremost priority.”

It continues: “CIJA-Quebec believes that every child should have access to an education in line with the ministry’s requirements. Indeed, all schools affiliated with the organized Jewish community respect and fully comply with the requirements and curriculum established by the Ministry of Education.”

This is a reference to the Association of Jewish Day Schools, a Federation CJA agency. The schools in the education ministry’s sights are not members.

Asked by The CJN for comment, D’Arcy McGee MNA David Birnbaum, a parliamentary assistant to the education minister, emailed: “This matter is now in the hands of police and youth protection services. The concern we all share is for the health and welfare of the children concerned. It wouldn’t be appropriate for me to make any further comment at this point.”

It is not only the government that’s challenging the way these schools operate. Two former students of schools in the Tasher community in Boisbriand, north of Montreal, have launched a lawsuit against them.

A couple in their 30s who left Tash in 2010, Yohanon and Shifra Lowen, are suing the Quebec government, the Commission scolaire de la Seigneurie-des-Milles-Îles and those responsible for the schools they attended.

They say their right to an adequate education was violated because they received virtually no secular instruction.

Some schools in Montreal are trying to comply with the law – at least up to a point that does not compromise religious beliefs – and change is taking place.

This school year, for example, a Satmar boys school, Yeshiva Toras Moshe, is participating in a homeschooling pilot project, proposed by the education ministry in an out-of-court settlement that averted the school’s closure.

The students continue to attend the school during the day, where they receive mostly religious instruction. Under the supervision of the English Montreal School Board (EMSB), they are homeschooled by their parents in the mandatory subjects.

A similar program is being discussed for the Satmar girls’ school, Beth Esther Academy. That school had its permit revoked in 2012, but continues to operate at the behest of Education Minister Sébastien Proulx, who is willing to give the school more time to conform to the law.

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