Outremont borough council is headed for yet another clash with its Hasidic communities over new zoning restrictions that are clearly aimed at them. The council, with the sole exception of councilor Mindy Pollack – who is Hasidic herself – has voted to bar new places of worship on largely commercial Bernard and Laurier. A referendum, if enough people sign a register, is expected on the issue later this year.
This move is a clear message to borough Hasidic communities that they can no longer develop the very institutions that define them – their prayer and devotion sites. They’re banned on Van Horne.
They are growing exponentially, with an average birth rate of about six children per family. The rate in Quebec is 1.74, below replacement level of 2.1. Outremont Jews, mostly Hasidim, constitute about 20 per cent of the borough’s 24,000 population.
Since the zoning restriction is clearly aimed at the only faith community that needs more houses of worship, it appears to contravene constitutional rights against discrimination based on religion.
The Hasidic association has hired constitutional lawyer Julius Grey, who has served notice he intends to launch a court challenge on this basis.
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This bylaw was sparked when the Hasidic community rented an abandoned storefront on Bernard at the corner of Champagneur, across from the Outremont Theatre, where it was to open a synagogue. This was seen as a direct threat to restaurants, bars, and shops centered around Outremont Ave. – a frontal assault on what could be called the Little Champs Elysée of the intellectual and artistic élite that calls Outremont home. But it is not clear why using that storefront would prevent neighbouring shops, restaurants and bars from flourishing.
In spite of this latest conflict, the 4,500 Hasidic community members who live in and around Outremont, including on adjoining streets and east of Park Ave., are thriving.
Anyone who spends time in the area can see it, in the huge number of children playing in its parks or riding bikes, in the schools and shops that cater to their needs, the way families dress up on Sabbath and head off to the area’s 15 little synagogues in their finery, in the calm way they walk to and from their homes, and how they respond to gestures of recognition and even friendship. In fact, only four of the synagogues are in Outremont. The others are on the streets of neighbouring Mile End.
It is a burgeoning community, with some families having ten or more children, and a brisk real estate market that reflects it. Much of the transition from an original few hundred has been relatively peaceful.
Yes, anti-Hasidic activists have protested virtually every time the community converts an empty storefront into a school or synagogue. But the end result has been to accommodate rather than to confront.
Some residents will remember that the old general store and light lunch counter called Victor’s on Bernard near Querbes in the 1950s was quietly converted to a ritual bath. Nobody complained. The Hasidic community is growing, and their need for the limited stock of real estate in the borough grows along with their increasing numbers.
Religious practice, study, and spirituality are essential to the life of these communities. Yes, it sometimes puts them at odds with secular residents who patronize the restaurants, bars, and shops.
Not all may understand, but the followers of various Hasidic sects, such as Belz, Satmar, Vishnitz, and Klausenberg, follow the teachings and traditions of individual revered rabbis and their dynasties, and so their followers require their own synagogues – hence the proliferation.
So what if a storefront on Bernard and Champagneur is not viable as a restaurant or shop, and a Hasidic community rents or buys? Why should the laws of economics not apply when there is a limited supply of non-residential property and a community is willing to invest resources to meet its needs? Who is inconvenienced?
Because they are not able to use vehicles on the Sabbath and the more serious holidays, community members, including children, seniors, and the infirm, need to have their synagogues within walking distance. It is therefore reasonable for them to seek accessible spaces.
Hasidic residents are happy where they live. Outremont council should take a conciliatory approach and seek to reasonably accommodate their needs rather than bludgeoning them with discriminatory restrictions.
In this struggle, which principles and practices will win out: freedom of expression, religion, association, and the reality of the real estate market, or restricting a community in full effervescence?
We urge a conciliatory approach, based not on restrictions, but consultation, cooperation and above all goodwill.