Trial shines light on closed Hasidic community on outskirts of Montreal

A civil case in Quebec court has offered a rare glimpse into an ultra-orthodox Hasidic community in an off-island Montreal suburb, raising questions about the government's role in ensuring children receive a secular education.

Civil case rests on what Quebec should have done to ensure ultra-orthodox Jewish children got a real education

Shifra Lowen, left, and Yohanan Lowen, right, at the Montreal courthouse with one of their lawyers, Clara Poissant-Lespérance. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

UPDATE Feb. 17, 2020: Abraham Ekstein, president of the Quebec Jewish Association for Homeschooling, was the final witness in the trial. You can read more about his testimony here.

Yohanan and Shifra Lowen sat in a Montreal courtroom this past week, listening and taking notes, straining to understand the testimony given in French — a language they were never taught in school.

They heard how the Quebec Education Ministry had been aware, for decades, that religious schools were operating without permits in Tash, the ultra-Orthodox Hasidic community in Boisbriand, north of Montreal, where they grew up.

They heard how bureaucrats and youth protection workers had visited on numerous occasions and launched an investigation in 2014.

Their lawyers questioned why more hadn't been done sooner to make sure children in those schools were being taught subjects like history, math and science.

Then it was their turn. Yohanan and Shifra described their own experience growing up in Tash: the strict adherence to Jewish law; the long days, particularly for Yohanan and other boys, studying religious texts in Aramaic and ancient Hebrew — and the difficulties they faced adapting to the outside world once they left.

On Wednesday, Shifra spoke of what leaving meant for her own four children. 

It was "a dream come true" to enrol her children at a school with a gym, she said — a school that offered a full range of subjects. 

The three youngest are still in a Montreal public school.

The eldest, she told the court with pride, is studying mathematics at the University of Toronto on a scholarship.

Quebec Superior Court Justice Martin Castonguay asked Shifra how she is able to help her children with their science homework.

"They teach me," she replied, then broke into tears.

Castonguay called a short recess.

'A different planet'

On Thursday, it was her husband's turn in the witness box.

Yohanan, who was born in England and moved to Tash at age 10, walked the courtroom audience through a typical school day. 

He'd rise before 6 a.m. and study from then until past 9 p.m., poring over Jewish scriptures — day in and day out, except on the Sabbath.

Boys in Tash received only two years of limited, secular education, he testified.

Yohanan didn't even get that.

"Your soul is much more pure if you don't have any outside knowledge," his mother had told him, so he stopped his secular learning after just one year.

Later, while still living in Tash, Yohanan secretly took English courses at the Montreal YMHA.

When Yohanan was 18 and Shifra 17, their marriage was arranged. In 2010, after a simmering dispute with the community over his refusal to use corporal punishment on his own children, they left.

Yohanan Lowen was the subject of a documentary that aired on Radio-Canada, Je veux savoir. (Radio-Canada)

When they got an apartment in Montreal, they did not know then how to speak French (Shifra later took courses), and they had only a rudimentary knowledge of English, according to court filings.

Yohanan told the court learning to adapt was a struggle.

"I'm still working on it," said Yohanan, now 42, who is unemployed.

"It's hard because you always feel like you don't belong here — not just a different country, but a different planet."

Yohanan said his reason for launching this civil suit against the province and the community is to ensure other children in religious schools get a proper secular education and don't have to go through what he did.

"I believe there is a saying, that if you have a lemon you have to make lemonade from it," he said.

"I feel that I'm suffering so much, that I don't want it to go to waste."

Rather than money, the couple is seeking a declaratory judgment from the court. They want the judge to find Quebec "violated its obligations of monitoring and protection to these children and deprived them of their right to a public education in French."

If successful, it could mean the province will need to take additional steps to ensure children in Tash and those attending other religious schools receive a secular education.

What's changed?

A question hanging over the trial is whether the necessary measures are already in place.

Tash was founded in 1962 by Hasidic Jews who left Montreal to escape the influences of the city, to give their children a religious education. About 3,000 people now live there.

For decades, Tash's schools operated without permits because the Education Ministry didn't have the tools to address the issue. But that's changed over the past three years, the court has heard.

The attorney general's sole witness in the case, Barbara Gagnon, is the Education Ministry director overseeing private schools.

In her testimony, Gagnon pointed to a 2017 law passed by the previous Liberal government that gives the government greater powers to track children in religious schools and gives school boards the authority to oversee their secular education.

The current Coalition Avenir Québec government further strengthened the law last year, requiring that students learn a subject in the same year as their peers in public school and take part in mandated provincial exams.

Education Minister Jean-François Roberge introduced stricter measures for home-schooled children. (Sylvain Roy Roussel/CBC)

Gagnon said the Education Ministry has already taken action in two separate cases, one involving the Rabbinical College of Canada in Montreal and the other, a fringe religious sect known as Mission de l'Esprit-Saint, or Mission of the Holy Spirit.

The Lowens' lawyers pointed out during cross-examination that the religious schools in Tash still do not teach secular subject matter.

Gagnon said the roughly 830 students in Tash are now home-schooled, with the oversight of the Sir Wilfrid Laurier School Board. Another ministry official — a witness called by the plaintiffs — said the home-schooling program has been successful.

A 2019 report prepared by the school board, however, noted parents in Tash often have difficulty teaching their children the curriculum, given they aren't familiar with the material themselves.

The report also said parents were averse to teaching the "sexual reproduction component" in the science curriculum.

"It is considered a highly offensive topic to include in an educational document," the report said, while stating it would not be removed because it "was important to present the entirety of the program."

Je veux savoir documentary

Yohanan Lowen has become a well-known figure in Quebec. His experience was the subject of a Radio-Canada documentary, Je veux savoir, by journalist Émilie Dubreuil, whose reporting was submitted as evidence by the plaintiffs.

Yohanan even appeared on the popular French-language talk show Tout le Monde en Parle a few years ago, where he criticized the government and his home community.

His arguments have been seized upon by commentators opposed to all religious accommodation.

The CAQ government, which has already made clear its commitment to secularism with its controversial religious symbols law, may not be opposed to a push for stronger rules.

The Lowens' comments have angered many Hasidic Jews, who say the couple's struggles aren't representative of their own experiences. Many Hasidic schools in Montreal already meet the provincial curriculum requirements.

For those that don't, Abraham Ekstein, a spokesperson for Quebec's Jewish Association for Homeschooling, said outside the courtroom this past week the arrangement with the school boards has been positive.

"At this point, all the children in the community and overall in Quebec, they are registered," he told reporters.

"They are followed very closely by the government, so everyone is getting an education which is necessary to succeed in life."

David Banon, the lawyer for the schools in Tash, is expected to call one or two witnesses from the community when the trial resumes Monday.


Benjamin Shingler is a reporter with CBC in Montreal covering health and current affairs. He previously worked at The Canadian Press, Al Jazeera America and the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal.


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