The good burghers of Outremont, feeling challenged rather than enriched by the vitality and growth of the Hasidic community that co-habits the territory, have taken the wrong approach as they seek to suppress its most essential need – places of worship.
How anachronistic it must seem to the largely secular majority that for the Hasidim, who constituted about 20 per cent of the borough’s 22,945 population in 2011, according to Statistics Canada, community worship has the highest priority. With their burgeoning numbers, the Hasidic community’s need to establish synagogues that are within walking distance to their residences led them to rent a semi-basement on Bernard, corner Champagneur, precipitating the current crisis. This spot is close to what the secular majority feels is the heart of their village of bars, restaurants, and shops, and led to a bylaw forbidding new places of worship on what is a mixed commercial street. The bylaw was approved in a referendum, to the dismay of the Hasidic community that has to cope with seriously overcrowded facilities. And the semi-basement remained unoccupied, with to-let signs dotting the avenue.
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Although there are ten Hasidic synagogues in neighbouring Mile End — which blend in well in this hippest area in the city, only three are located in the actual Outremont boundaries: the Toldos Yacov Yosef of the Skver Hasidim, located in the former Beth Moishe congregation, Durocher, corner Lajoie, which has been there since 1953; the Machzikei Torah Tov, on Bernard near Querbes, which has been there for decades; and the Ahavath Israel of the Viznitz Hasidim, at the corner of Van Horne and Durocher.
Since new places of worship have already been banned on Laurier and Van Horne, and much of the rest of the borough is residentially zoned, the ban on Bernard sends a blunt message: If you can’t cope with the current arrangement, move out. This, the Hasidim will not do. As Université de Montréal sociologist Sandrine Malarde, author of the recently published La vie secrète des Hassidim (Les Éditions XYZ) told an interviewer: “A pathway to agreement must be found, (based on) common interests. The Hasidim are there to stay.”
Among options, community leaders are considering launching a court challenge, since the bylaw obviously targets them — a clear manifestation of discriminatory treatment of a religious minority. Mayor Denis Coderre has offered to help, since there is an industrial/commercial property on a large lot on the Montreal side
of Hutchison, north of Van Horne. On the other hand, the Hasidim ask, correctly, why their places of study and worship should be ghettoized into a corner, instead of comfortably housed on Bernard. Why not just limit the ban to the ground floor of these buildings on Bernard, as suggested by borough councilor Mindy Pollak, who is part of the Viznitz community?
Either way, Outremont city council has used the tyranny of the majority to restrict the Hasidic community in its most essential needs, rather than seeking to look for compromise in an accommodating spirit. For this, Outremont council deserves the most severe condemnation.