For years, Montreal’s ultra-Orthodox Hasidic minority built a reputation as an insular, nearly hermetic community, shunning contact with its secular neighbours in favour of rigidly pious lives.
Now, however, an unlikely figure is breaching the community’s walls. At a time when Quebec is plunging into a maelstrom over the place of religion in public life, a 24-year-old Hasidic woman named Mindy Pollak is running for office. She is seeking a borough seat for the opposition Projet Montréal party in Outremont, trying to reach across the divide in a district long marked by tensions between Hasidic Jews and their neighbours.
“It’s really revolutionary,” Ms. Pollak said. “But if we focus on what we have in common rather than what divides us, then we can work toward solutions.”
Her candidacy marks an unprecedented step for a fast-growing community that almost forms a city-within-the-city. The Hasidim have their own schools and groceries, speak Yiddish, and the men wear full beards and long black coats like their ancestors in 18th-century Eastern Europe.
Ms. Pollak is stepping into the political limelight as the Parti Québécois government seeks to defend Quebec’s secular character by limiting expressions of religion in the public sphere. Although she wears no visible symbols of her faith, the Hassidim are regularly used by some media to illustrate the isolation of religious minorities from the mainstream.
She is also breaking the mould within her own community – testing the bounds of a patriarchal system in which women are largely confined to the shadows, tasked with a religious duty to show public modesty and care for households of five or six children and more.
A member of the Vizhnitz sect who lives with her parents, Ms. Pollak faces unique challenges on the hustings. As a Hasidic woman, she cannot shake the hand of a man who is not a relative; some men will not even look her in the eye. Nor will she campaign on the Sabbath, from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday.
One evening recently, when the temperature in Montreal hit 28 degrees and many women around the city resorted to short skirts and T-shirts, Ms. Pollak campaigned door-to-door in a below-the-knee black dress, thick white stockings and a long-sleeved shirt. The outfit conformed to religious requirements that Hasidic women appear in public with covered knees, elbows and collarbones.
While Orthodox Jewish men have served on municipal councils in Montreal, Ms. Pollak is the first Hasidic person to try to get elected. (Before running, she sought and obtained the approval of Montreal’s chief rabbi).
“Frankly, I have never heard of a Hasidic woman going for electoral office elsewhere,” said Ira Robinson, an expert on Hasidism and interim director of the Institute for Canadian Jewish Studies at Concordia University in Montreal. “This is something new, and it’s quite significant.”
Ms. Pollak, whose four grandparents all survived the Holocaust, works in a beauty salon and speaks fluent English, French and Yiddish. She became involved in civic life after a proposal to expand a Hasidic synagogue near her home on Hutchison Street was defeated in a community referendum. In the fractious aftermath, she forged a bond with a non-Jewish neighbour and co-founded Friends of Hutchison Street.
Yet her emergence reflects signs of deeper shifts within the Hasidim. Prof. Robinson said divorce is more prevalent than it used to be, and the Internet is playing a growing role in many homes. “There’s an awareness within the community that things are changing,” he said. “It cannot survive in isolation.”
There have been several flashpoints for conflict in Outremont, a well-heeled district that is also home to Quebec’s intelligentsia. In a high-profile case, a local YMCA caused an uproar after frosting over its windows at the request of a neighbouring Hasidic synagogue and religious school, which wanted to spare its male attendees the sight of women in skimpy exercise clothes. And Outremont banned street processions after a confrontation with a borough councillor during the Jewish holiday of Purim.
Ms. Pollak is running in a district within Outremont with a high concentration of Hasidic families. Several seem buoyed by her candidacy. While she was out campaigning, Hasidic women surrounded by broods of children came out onto their front stoops to greet her warmly, many expressing pride and words of encouragement.
Eli Herzog, a Hasidic man pushing one of his six children in a stroller, said the community needed someone to speak for the Hasidim, whom he felt were misunderstood. “From the outside we may look closed, but it’s not true. We think we are open-minded and we know what’s going on out there,” Mr. Herzog said. “It’s important to have someone to voice our opinion and place it in front of the electorate. It took a woman to go to the next step.”
Ms. Pollak’s biggest challenge, however, will be to win over her secular neighbours. And one candidate opposing her, Pierre Lacerte, is well-known for his acerbic blog postings insistently cataloging alleged transgressions like zoning violations by the Hasidim. In one posting, he sarcastically describes the Friends of Hutchison Street as “pseudo neo-Gandhis.”
To Ms. Pollak, the solution to local rifts rests in dialogue. Conflicts arise from “ignorance, fear and misunderstanding, a fear of what is different. We all share the same values, deep down.”
Her goal is to make peace between the Hasidim and other residents. But she’ll need the backing of voters of all backgrounds on Nov. 3 if she wants to make history.