Jun 22, 2011

Montreal synagogue battle turns bitter


Graeme Hamilton: Montreal synagogue battle turns bitter

  • Graham Hughes for National Post
  • Mayer Feig in the Gate David Synagogue in Montreal.
  • MONTREAL – The young Hasidic mother sat on her porch Tuesday afternoon waiting for the school bus to drop off her son. Her smiling three-year-old daughter sucked on a purple freezie. "When I walk in the street," the woman said, "I feel a hatred in the air."
  • Next door, her elderly neighbour sat wearing an identical pink hair covering. "We feel very bad," she said in accented English. "Like 60 years ago." Asked to elaborate, she said she was born in Germany and rolled up her sleeve to reveal a number tattooed into her left forearm. She is a survivor of Auschwitz.
  • It is unfathomable that such sentiments could be felt in Montreal in 2011, but even harder to believe is the source of the women's disquiet: a proposed zoning change to allow a minor expansion of their 60-year-old synagogue, located just down the street.
  • What should have been a routine building improvement has degenerated into a divisive battle between the Hasidim and some non-Jewish residents who believe the ultra-orthodox Jews bend the rules and disturb the peace. On Sunday, a referendum to determine whether the proposed expansion – adding about 400 square feet to the back of the dilapidated Gate David synagogue – could go ahead was defeated by a vote of 243 to 212. For the roughly 200 congregants who all live within walking distance, the result was a cruel slap.
  • Pierre Lacerte, the blogger who spearheaded the campaign against the expansion, couldn't be happier. Mr. Lacerte lives on the same block as the synagogue and for the past six years he has devoted much of his time to documenting what he considers the excesses of the Hasidim in the neighbourhoods of Outremont and Mile End.

  • Graham Hughes for National Post
  • Pierre Lacerte
  • His blog is filled with sarcastic comments about Hasidic leaders and any non-Jews whom he deems too cozy with the Hasidim. After borough officials approved the synagogue's renovation plans, he was instrumental in gathering the signatures required to put the matter to a vote. On Sunday, he spent 12 hours encouraging people to vote against the project.
  • He does not dispute that Gate David needs renovations. "It's a slum," he said. But he says under no circumstances should the synagogue be allowed to expand into its back yard. The plan was to extend the building 10 feet back so a ground floor washroom and a cloakroom could be added. Currently elderly congregants have to go to the basement to use the toilet, and in the winter, every time the front door opens freezing air blows into the main prayer room. The synagogue's immediate neighbours had no objections.


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