The Hasidic population makes up about a quarter of the city’s Outremont neighbourhood, a tree-lined cosmopolitan district dotted with sidewalk cafes and French bistros.
From the outside, there’s a certain mystery and misunderstanding about the close-knit community, from its distinct garb — black coats and sidelocks for the men, long dresses for the women — to rumours about the extent of their religious rules and rituals.
Founded in Europe in the 18th century, the ultra-Orthodox sect teaches observers to show their love of God through daily actions _ such as shunning physical work and artificial power on the Sabbath.
A few dozen Hasidic families arrived in Montreal around the Second World War, settling in the city and expanding quickly alongside their francophone neighbours, with a birthrate several times the Quebec average.
Lately, the community has been in the headlines, thrust once again into the centre of the province's debates about accommodating minorities.
In March, a group of Hasidim celebrating a holiday on the street were involved in a heated dispute with a local city councillor known for challenging the community.
The shouting match drew attention after it was posted online and, ultimately, led to a temporary ban on all religious processions in the district.
That clash followed a failed attempt last summer to expand the local synagogue. The move was blocked in a referendum — an eye-opener for many Hasidim as to how they were regarded by neighbours.
Two Hasidic men started a blog called outremonthassid.com, intended to open up an "honest and sincere dialogue with our neighbours here in Outremont."
Over a hundred residents — some in the dark clothing typical of the Hasidim, others in jeans and t-shirts — crammed into a conference room in a local library on a recent sunny Sunday afternoon.
"It was really initiated around the time when we had the referendum on synagogue,” said Rabbi Mayer Feig, who helped lead the discussion.
"We wanted to open dialogue, and just talk."
Most at the meeting were sympathetic to that goal. Others offered up a laundry list of complaints, ranging from Hasidic drivers' penchant for double-parking to their lack of commitment to French.
"The effort isn't there," said Pierre Lacerte, who writes a blog critical of religious accommodation and led the fight against the synagogue's expansion.
Lacerte, though, was denounced by all but a small minority of the crowd at the meeting. One man, originally from France, suggested the framing of the debate needed to be rethought.
Another resident was more blunt in her assessment of the complaints.
Source: The Canadian Press