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Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Montreal - Fight to Close Munkatch Synagogue Has City Accused of Persecution

MONTREAL — The City of Montreal was in court this week to shut a 30-year-old Hasidic synagogue in the central-Montreal borough of Outremont because it's operating in a residential zone — a move that is fomenting divisions between Jews and non-Jews in the area.

Members of Congregation Munchas Elozer Munkas say they have never had problems with their neighbours until recently and wonder why the city is suddenly taking legal action to shut them down.

"I've been praying there for 18 years and no one's ever complained," said Meyer Pollak, a father of five, originally from New York.

He said the small congregation, comprised of about 35 families, has several elderly and handicapped members who appreciate the synagogue's ground-level entrance.

The first of three days of hearings in Quebec Superior Court no sooner got under way Monday than the case was postponed to next spring after the lawyer representing the congregation raised the question of freedom of religion.

"The application of the bylaw prevents someone from practising his religion," said Marvin Segal. "It affects certain people, a certain group."

But the city says it has nothing to do with rights and freedoms, but boils down rather to a simple case of applying a bylaw that doesn't allow a commercial or religious building at that address.

Lawyers representing the city said they were ready to proceed but were taken aback by the portion of Segal's defence that raised Charter of Rights and Freedoms issues.

"That was never considered or discussed prior to the start of the judicial process that resurfaced in 2009," city spokesman Gonzalo Nunez said in a statement.

The legal action began with a resolution passed by Outremont borough council in October 2008 to have the synagogue shut down.

The congregation says a few residents — not all of whom live in Outremont — are stirring the pot.

It's not the first time there have been tensions between Jews and non-Jews in the Mile End and Outremont.

In June, some residents from those neighbourhoods rejected in a referendum the planned expansion of Gate David, a small Hasidic synagogue.

In this most recent squabble, Pinchos Freund was fined in 1982 for having transformed his building from residential, to a place of prayer, according to the motion filed in court in 2009 by the city. Freund won on appeal in 1983.

The following year, Congregation Munchas Elozer Munkas acquired the building from Freund.

The next date mentioned in the city's motion is 2002 — almost 30 years later — when an inspector noticed that a sign had been erected on the front of the building, and a study and prayer room had been built in the basement.

In 2008 and again in 2009, city officials concluded the building was being used for religious activities.

The motion says the city has received numerous complaints since 2002 about the congregation's activities.

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