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Winds of Change

Machla Abramovitz

Montreal’s newly reelected borough councilor, 24-year-old chassidish woman, Mindy Pollak, knows that with hard work and heart, even the thickest barriers can be breached

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

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When Mindy was first elected in 2013, she was not only the only councilor elected from Projet Montreal — at age 24, she was less than half the age of the others, and unlike them, she was new to the job. The challenges were daunting

T he Outremont council chamber was filled to capacity.

But while on previous occasions the chamber had been permeated with tension, anger, and frustration, the mood this evening was celebratory. Its inhabitants, chassidic and Quebecois, all volunteers working for the political party Projet Montreal, were beaming.

On November 5th, their efforts paid off big time: Not only did they help Projet Montreal’s Valerie Plante defeat incumbent Denis Coderre to become Montreal’s first female mayor, they also helped elect four of the five Projet Montreal candidates running for Outremont borough council, including its vibrant new borough mayor Philipe Tomlinson. As these newly elected councilors entered the room, there was a spontaneous burst of applause and a standing ovation.

Among those who entered was borough councilor Mindy Pollak, the only chassidic woman to hold office. She was all smiles, her blue eyes glowing with delight and gratitude. Her past four years as councilor had been tough, much tougher than she’d anticipated. But she had made it through beautifully. Tonight, she was putting the past behind her. It was a time for heralding in, as some Quebec newspapers would write, “a wind of change,” especially between chassidim and their Quebecois neighbors; it was time to write a new chapter.

A Rough Beginning

Mindy proudly shows off her new office in Outremont’s city hall: a charming, white, Victorian edifice overlooking Chemin de la Côte-Sainte-Catherine, a major Montreal artery. It’s here that municipal policy is debated, established, and enacted, whether pertaining to business, roads, housing, education, or public displays of religion.

Mindy shares the room with her colleagues, Valerie Patreau and Fanny Magini. The room’s comfort and its proximity to the mayor’s office is not something she takes for granted — during the past four years, her office was a small space downstairs behind the council room and removed from the seat of power. The symbolism was clear; despite being elected, it seemed to say, you are in the minority here and we will clip your wings whenever possible.

“We actually laughed it off; the idea was so crazy. No chassidishe girl had ever run for office. But I was at a time in my life where this was something I could consider since I was divorced and thus had the time and energy to dedicate myself fully”

When Mindy was first elected in 2013, she was not only the only councilor elected from Projet Montreal — at age 24, she was less than half the age of the others, and unlike them, she was new to the job. The challenges were daunting.

“It was a huge learning curve. I had to learn all the technical municipal terms in French. I had no idea how to resolve citizens’ complaints. There are no qualifications necessary to run for office and no training. You learn on the job.”

Aggravating matters further was the constant harassment instigated by independent borough councilor Celine Forget. Forget’s insidious and constant aggression against chassidim included such inanities as measuring the noise levels of their air conditioners, the height of their grass, and legally challenging the erecting of an eiruv, claiming that the wire deprived her of the right to fly a kite. (A judge eventually ruled against her, essentially telling her to go fly a kite.)

Working in cahoots with unemployed journalist Pierre Lacerte, whose poisonous blog maligned chassidim and mocked those sympathetic to them, Forget held the council hostage, succeeding in passing bylaws that targeted chassidim. The last such bylaw prohibited new places of worship from being built anywhere in the entire borough of Outremont, a strike against potential shuls.

“The council members dealt with Forget by cowing,” Mindy recalls. “They weren’t confident enough to do the right thing by standing up to her.”

But after three terms, Forget is history, soundly defeated by Projet Montreal candidate Valerie Patreau. The other incumbent borough councilors were similarly defeated; Mindy, who garnered the wide support of her chassidic and Quebecois constituents, was the only incumbent to gain reelection.

How did this poised, soft-spoken young woman from a Vizhnitzer home, a graduate of the Belzer Bnos Jerusalem Girls School who worked as an aesthetician, manage to win the hearts of both upscale, predominantly secular Quebecois society and chassidim — and buck the trend in both communities? (Excerpted from Family First, Issue 575)

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