Referendum on places of worship in Montreal's Outremont borough has Hasidic community worried

A referendum on a bylaw banning new places of worship on one of Outremont's main streets has members of the Montreal borough's Jewish Hasidic community concerned.

'Are we supposed to stuff them all into one synagogue?': Ultra-Orthodox Jewish population feels targeted

Mindy Pollak, a local city councillor and Hasidic Jew, says she wants to find a solution that works for everyone. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

A referendum on a bylaw prohibiting new places of worship on one of Outremont's main streets has members of the Montreal borough's Hasidic Jewish community concerned.

Residents will vote Sunday on whether to overturn the ban on Bernard Avenue, a tree-lined strip dotted with restaurants, cafes and residential buildings.

The bylaw, introduced last year, forbids new temples of worship of any denomination from opening on the street. But the borough's sizeable — and growing — ultra-Orthodox Hasidic community feels targeted.

"Hasidic people in Outremont are close to 25 per cent of the population, which is quite a big population," said Alex Werzberger, president of the Coalition of Outremont Hasidic Organizations.

"Close to 8 to 9,000 people. Are we supposed to stuff them all into one synagogue on Bernard?"

Ban on Bernard would mean a ban in Outremont

The regulation was introduced in 2015 after the borough approved a permit for a synagogue on Bernard. 

A referendum will determine whether to overturn a bylaw banning places of worship on Bernard Avenue in Outremont. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)
In response, the borough decided to pass a law banning all new places of worship on two key arteries, Bernard Avenue and Laurier Avenue, with the aim of creating "winning conditions" for local businesses.

The Laurier ban wasn't contested and the other major street, Van Horne Avenue, has had a similar ban since the late 1990s.

A vote in favour of the Bernard ban would therefore effectively block any new synagogues in the borough.

Francine Brulée, co-owner of the Les Enfants Terribles, a high-end bistro on Bernard, supports the bylaw.

Brulée says many people in the Hasidic community don't frequent her restaurant or other businesses in the area.

"They do their own things and that's okay," she said. "But if there's more and more and more, the other stores and the other restaurants will suffer, I think."

Business argument 'doesn't hold water'

Mindy Pollak, a local councillor for Projet Montréal and herself a Hasidic Jew, said she's concerned residents don't understand the implications of the ban.

Bernard Avenue is a mix of shops, restaurants and residential buildings.
She added that the pro-business argument "just doesn't hold water."

Pollak pointed to Parc Avenue, located just outside the Outremont borough boundary, where synagogues recently opened up on a "block that was completely abandoned and neglected before. So obviously, not bad for commercial use."

Pollak said there was high voter turnout at advance polls, which is promising in terms of "voter participation and citizen engagement, so that's always good news for me."

"This has been traditionally a Jewish community, and this is kind of absurd to ask them not to be here," she said.

Long history in Outremont

This isn't the first time Outremont, which is home to a large and wealthy francophone population, has been the site of conflict with the Hasidic community.

Police assisted with a raid this summer at a Hasidic school not far from Outremont. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)
In the past, the community has engaged in battles with Outremont council over the use of charter buses in residential streets and the placement of the eruv, the symbolic enclosure made of string used to carry items on the Sabbath.

In 2006, news that the neighbourhood YMCA had switched to frosted windows to obscure Hasidic students' view of women in exercise wear spurred a debate over the reasonable accommodation of minorities which has never quite subsided.

Earlier this year, a Hasidic school near Outremont was raided by youth protection officials because of concern it was not following the provincial curriculum.

Renaud Charest, who has lived in Outremont for three years, said he still hasn't made up his mind about how he will vote on Sunday.

"I get the point of wanting to develop the neighbourhood with new shops and restaurants and things, but I also get the point of freedom of religion and expression," he said. "Which one is more important here?"

Residents can vote between 10 a.m. and 8 p.m. at the Centre d'éducation des adultes Outremont, at 500 Dollard,Blvd. More details are available here.

with files from The Canadian Press