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Rights and Wrongs in Montreal

Machla Abramovitz

When an Outremont city councillor was caught measuring the decibel levels of air conditioners in Jewish homes for noise pollution and a popular blogger claimed that smoke generated from burning chometz before Pesach is a health hazard, the chassidic community of this Montreal suburb realized they’d been roped into a turf war. But instead of remaining at loggerheads with the Quebecois, they embraced their non-Jewish neighbors with deeds of loving kindness.

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

The dining room of Maneur Outremont is filled to capacity, its residents tapping away to the rhythmic beat of Jewish music. Five young chassidic men are singing in a small dining room, crooning everything from Carlebach to Sephardic tunes. “Magnifique,” one white-haired woman gushes. “Extraordinaire,” answers an elderly gentleman, a broad smile on his face.

Maneur Outremont is a non-Jewish assisted-living residence located in the heart of Outremont, a posh, upscale Montreal borough that is home to lawyers, politicians, artists, and businesspeople — the crème de la crème of Quebecois society. Seated among the audience is Outremont’s Member of Parliament Thomas Mulcaire, who is also the leader of the New Democratic Party (NDP), Canada’s official opposition. It was at Mulcaire’s initiative that Bobover askan Mayer Feig arranged for Aaron Friedlander and his Refuah v’Chesed band to entertain these elderly residents.

“We felt that by entertaining non-Jewish seniors it would help shed a positive light on the chassidic community,” Feig says.

It’s not every day that chassidim dance for elderly non-Jewish residents of a retirement home, but the state of relations between Jews and non-Jews in Outremonthas called for creative measures. Since about 2001, chassidim and community activists have faced off over the configuration of buses, expanding synagogues, and the legality of eiruvim. Tensions have flared, especially during Purim in 2012 when Celine Forget, a provocateur and city council member, showed up among the festivities to plant herself, camera in hand, to record any violation of city bylaws. When chassidim reacted with calls of “Forget, get out,” the discord between chassidim and the local population made headlines acrossCanada.

Into this maelstrom have stepped a new crop of Jewish community activists who have decided on a different approach. Rather than allow tensions to boil over, the chassidic residents of Outremonthave engaged in an active campaign of Kiddush Hashem. In addition to the visits to retirement homes, community members have established an online site, joined a political party, and founded a community organization, all with the goals of easing misunderstandings and introducing non-Jewish residents to the chassidic way of life.

“Today, even politicians who were sympathetic to us in the past are not willing to stand up for us out of fear of being labeled as rubbing shoulders with the ‘Jewish lobbyists,’” Belzer chassid Cheskie Weiss explains. “Well, if we won’t stand up for ourselves and engage the public and media to expose all the lies and misinformation being hurled against our community, nobody else will.”


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