Friday, February 19, 2021

Policing religious gathering limits during the coronavirus pandemic requires sensitivity 

The images were stark: men and boys fleeing from a synagogue into the night as Montreal police gathered outside the building.

In the video taken on Jan. 22, the word "Nazi" can be clearly heard in the background mix of different voices, undoubtedly uttered against the police. The officers were at the Skver congregation community synagogue to enforce provincial health rules limiting gatherings during the pandemic.

A judge later ruled in favour of a challenge by the Hasidic community to the health regulations but remained open to future changes to the rules by the government.

As social science researchers interested in how people live together, this video challenges us and also invites us to begin a reflection that goes beyond it.

A fragmented world

Beyond the disrespect of the instructions issued by Public Health, this episode evokes a scenario that has been repeated many times: the characterization of all the Hasidic groups present in Montreal's Outremont and Plateau-Mont-Royal boroughs based on the actions of certain members.

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This approach is well known and numerous works in social psychology — notably those of Henri Tajfel, a pioneer in the study of intergroup relations — highlight the process by which a minority group is perceived as a homogeneous whole and the behaviour of some members is extrapolated to reflect that of the entire group.

It is therefore useful to remember that the Hasidic community does not exist in the singular sense. Rather, there are several communities that derive their names from the cities in Eastern and Central Europe where they were born. While the largest in Montreal, such as the Belz or Satmar, have several thousand members and are well known, other communities are made up of only a few families such as the Klausenberg and Trisk.

To these divisions rooted in the long history of Hasidic Judaism must be added divisions within the different communities themselves. Sociologist Samuel Heilman examines precisely these divisions rooted in problems of succession in five Hasidic dynasties in North America.

Institutional fragmentation is not peculiar to Hasidic Judaism. It is also found in other religious traditions that do not have a unique organizational structure. Nevertheless, this fragmentation has very concrete consequences for the local geography of synagogues, as sociologist Iddo Tavory shows in his research on the Orthodox communities of the Beverly-La Brea neighbourhood in Los Angeles, Calif.

While members may be able to attend three prayers a day in a synagogue that is not their community's synagogue, in part because the times are more convenient to their schedule, they attend their community's synagogue for Shabbat prayer, which runs from Friday night to Saturday night.


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