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Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Montreal, Canada - Shul Battle Turns Bitter,

Gate David synagogue

Montreal, Canada - The young Hasidic mother sat on her porch Tuesday afternoon waiting for the school bus to drop off her son. Her smiling three-year-old daughter sucked on a purple freezie. “When I walk in the street,” the woman said, “I feel a hatred in the air.”

Next door, her elderly neighbour sat wearing an identical pink hair covering. “We feel very bad,” she said in accented English. “Like 60 years ago.” Asked to elaborate, she said she was born in Germany and rolled up her sleeve to reveal a number tattooed into her left forearm. She is a survivor of Auschwitz.

It is unfathomable that such sentiments could be felt in Montreal in 2011, but even harder to believe is the source of the women’s disquiet: a proposed zoning change to allow a minor expansion of their 60-year-old synagogue, located just down the street.

What should have been a routine building improvement has degenerated into a divisive battle between the Hasidim and some non-Jewish residents who believe the ultra-orthodox Jews bend the rules and disturb the peace. On Sunday, a referendum to determine whether the proposed expansion – adding about 400 square feet to the back of the dilapidated Gate David synagogue – could go ahead was defeated by a vote of 243 to 212. For the roughly 200 congregants who all live within walking distance, the result was a cruel slap.

Pierre Lacerte, the blogger who spearheaded the campaign against the expansion, couldn’t be happier. Mr. Lacerte lives on the same block as the synagogue and for the past six years he has devoted much of his time to documenting what he considers the excesses of the Hasidim in the neighbourhoods of Outremont and Mile End.

His blog is filled with sarcastic comments about Hasidic leaders and any non-Jews whom he deems too cozy with the Hasidim. After borough officials approved the synagogue’s renovation plans, he was instrumental in gathering the signatures required to put the matter to a vote. On Sunday, he spent 12 hours encouraging people to vote against the project.

He does not dispute that Gate David needs renovations. “It’s a slum,” he said. But he says under no circumstances should the synagogue be allowed to expand into its back yard. The plan was to extend the building 10 feet back so a ground floor washroom and a cloakroom could be added. Currently elderly congregants have to go to the basement to use the toilet, and in the winter, every time the front door opens freezing air blows into the main prayer room. The synagogue’s immediate neighbours had no objections.

Mr. Lacerte, 56, walks the neighbourhood with a camera on his belt ready to document perceived Hasidic abuses for his blog. He said his interest is ensuring municipal regulations are respected, but the only violations he features involve the Hasidim. He rejects accusations of anti-Semitism but acknowledges it is possible his campaign attracts racists. The white supremacist web site Stormfront features links to some of his writings about the synagogue expansion.

“I know that there are racists everywhere, there are some who are against Jews, some who are against blacks,” Mr. Lacerte said. “Maybe even among those who encourage me. I cannot speak for the integrity or morality of everybody.”

For Mayer Feig, a 37-year-old member of the Gate David congregation, Mr. Lacerte’s protestations no longer hold water. The referendum result, he said, was not based on the merits of the proposed expansion. “The leaders that were bringing out the No vote were dishonest, they lied and from people they approached, I heard it went into extreme hate against the community,” he said.

“What was the motivation for this? Clearly it wasn’t based on the plan. Because the plan was 100% within the law. The city said it themselves.”

This is not the first time tensions have arisen between the Hasidim and their neighbours. In 2001, the Hasidim won a court case against Outremont, which had banned them from erecting an eruv, a symbolic string boundary that allows orthodox Jews to perform tasks that would otherwise be off limits on the Sabbath. Last March, Quebec Court rejected a prominent Hasidic leader’s attempt to have Mr. Lacerte placed under a Criminal Code order to keep the peace. The judge rules that Mr. Lacerte was “a peculiar personality” and “no picnic” but was not threatening anyone’s safety.

Now, in the aftermath of the referendum result, Mr. Feig has trouble imagining how relations will improve. In an uncommon gesture of outreach, the synagogue held an open house two weeks before the vote, but it was not enough to win the day. “The community feels it as a direct attack,” Mr. Feig said. “It’s a sad day for the relations.”

Leila Marshy, a non-Jewish neighbour who campaigned in favour of the zoning change, finds it depressing that residents did not seize the opportunity to build bridges with the Hasidim. “There’s been a lot of resentment toward the Hasidic community, and it came to a frothing boil in this election,” she said.

She and Mr. Feig have been talking about organizing a neighbourhood barbeque or block party to bring people together.

Julius Grey, a Montreal lawyer who has represented the Hasidic community in the eruv case, said the insular ways of the ultra-orthodox Jews do not help their cause but they have also been swept up in the current of secularism sweeping Quebec.

“There is mistrust on both sides,” Mr. Grey said. “There is always a problem when one group of people forms a cohesive community inside a larger community, and really you can’t join it.”

But he interprets the No vote as an “excessively secular” reaction. “The society is secular, but that doesn’t mean that some if its members cannot be religious,” he said. “The community should get another [project] and sell it to the majority, and the majority should ask itself, ‘Why are we reacting so vehemently?’”

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