New Era of Hope for Outremont - JCC Montreal
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19 Dec New Era of Hope for Outremont


Things are changing.

The voters are no longer tolerating the intolerant.

Spearheading this change is Mindy Pollak, a Chassidic woman reelected as borough councillor for a second term under the banner of Projet Montreal, with a team driven to action, not words.

Outremont: a clash of cultures

Ashkenazic immigration to Quebec began in the 1830s. Jews from Poland entering the “new world” had to pay for their belongings through Montreal’s custom duty collector, Louis-Tancrede Bouthillier. Bouthillier, who would later serve as Montreal’s sheriff, bought a large plot of land in the Cote-Ste-Catherine area and built a magnificent brick house, naming it “Outre-Mont” (over the mountain).

The village of Outremont was named after this house, which still stands on Rue McDougall. The area was settled by the upper class of French Canadian society, and in the 1920s a large number of Jews moved into the area. Over time, much of the established Orthodox communities moved further west into Cote des Neiges and Hampstead, but the Chassidic community settled down in Outremont.

Quebec’s “Quiet Revolution” took place in the 1960s and 1970s. One of the changes the revolution brought about was the secularization of a province that had been under the influence of strict Catholicism. As time passed, some of the Quebecers who fought for freedom from religion moved into Outremont, bringing with them a more radical approach to secularization.

Their neighbours: Chassidic Jews, standing out as examples of a confident religious group speaking a strange language. It was a clash of cultures.

Bylaws start piling up

What if I told you there was a part of the world where Jews are forbidden from building Synagogues?  Where children are restricted from going Purim Spieling in groups and the burning of the Chametz is relegated to the edge of town?

Those and other restrictions targeting Orthodox Jews all exist in the Outremont borough. How did this come about?

In 2007, Pierre Lacerte started tracking alleged bylaw violations of his Chassidic neighbours and posting them on his blog. It was a good time to open a blog, considering the outrage of similar-minded neighbours after reports surfaced that Chassidim had paid for a local gym to tint windows facing a lane where students congregated during study breaks. He put his photoshop skills to use, posting comic-like images depicting Chassidim bribing politicians and stingy Jews digging tunnels under Outremont homes. He also spent a great deal of time tracking community leaders, following them around with cameras and taking photographs of porches, backyards and garbage disposal areas belonging to Chassidic institutions, private homes, and daycares.

He garnered a following of citizens who detest Jews, and they organized as a group, attending monthly council meetings, routinely pushing for more restrictive bylaws targeting the Jewish community. They were very successful. After demanding that Chassidic philanthropist Michoel Rosenberg be kept off a local interfaith committee, Rosenberg sued Lacerte for defamation, based on the offensive material on Lacerte’s blog. When the judge ruled in Lacerte’s favour several years later, he posted a crude photoshopped image of Rosenberg, his son, and a respected leader of the Chassidic community crucified in front of Outremont City Hall.

Lacerte received a boost in 2011 when borough councillor Celine Forget, who had been an opponent of the Chassidim since 1997, successfully campaigned against a minor proposed Synagogue extension. Forget also blogged against the Chassidim, though her posts were more subdued.

Friends of Hutchison

The complaints were piling on and the restrictions were making life more and more difficult for Orthodox Jews in Outremont. Borough council meetings were emotionally charged as several members of the Chassidic community and friends started attending and trying to stand up for themselves. But borough council only heard the voices from Lacerte’s camp, supported by councillor Celine Forget.

In 2011, Leila Marshy, a non-Jewish, Palestinian woman living on Hutchison, received a flyer in her mailbox informing her about a Synagogueon her block that was planning to expand. The pamphlet encouraged her to join the campaign against the expansion, which would undoubtedly cause further traffic issues and the like.

Marshy spoke with a Chassidic neighbour about it and discovered that the extension was actually going to be a coat rack area and a bathroom. She watched Forget and Lacerte make the rounds on her streets, skipping any home with a Mezuzah. It was an unfair battle, she felt, and promptly started her own campaign supporting the Synagogue. She designed and printed her own flyers, distributing them door to door.

Chassidic neighbours responded emotionally. It was the first time someone had stood up for them and they formed a small group, distributing flyers together. Among the Chassidim was a young woman named Mindy Pollak, who formed a friendship with Marshy. When the extension to the Synagogue was rejected, the two decided to form a group and launched “Friends of Hutchison.”

Believing that dialogue can lead to positive change, they hosted packed town hall discussions in the local library. These discussions were often emotionally charged (Lacerte tried to disrupt one of the meetings, which brought about larger attendance at the next dialogue gathering), but it was the first time Chassidim and their neighbours spoke face to face, and it was eye opening on both sides.

Pierre Lacerte vs Mindy Pollak

The restrictions made life difficult for Chassidic residents of Outremont, but the neighbouring borough (Mile End) was an example of multiculturalism. A significant number of Chassidim live in the area, and there are no restrictions to their way of life. While the massive Chassidic community in Outremont is served by just four Shuls, there are over 10 Synagogues in the Mile End and they coexist with their neighbours peacefully.

Alex Norris was the a Projet Montreal City Councillor for the Mile End, and he was enamored with Friends of Hutchison. “He made a point to attend all our events and encouraged us throughout,” Mindy Pollak told the JCC. “He’s the one who convinced me to run as Borough Councillor.”

Mindy pondered the idea of representing her district and her community. “It was a totally unexpected direction that someone was asking me to take,” she recalled. “But at the end of the day, I realized that if I had the opportunity to make a difference, how could I not take it? If I might help change something, how could I refuse? I felt like I was in the right place at the right time.”

Despite future Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre addressing the Chassidic community directly in a plea to support his candidate, Pollak’s real rival was Lacerte, running as an independent. It was a tight race, but Pollak won by 168 votes. Forget was reelected, leading to a split Borough Council.

Forget Celine Forget

Before Mindy Pollak arrived on the scene, restrictions on Chassidim were proposed, and then passed as bylaws. That changed. However, she had to deal with a proposed ban on new Synagogues, thinly disguised as a boost for business despite no studies being undertaken. The proposed bylaw went to a referendum and passed.

The next week, Valerie Plante, experienced in non-profit work, won the leadership race of Projet Montreal. The next evening, a group of non-Jewish neighbours organized a candlelit unity event in an Outremont park. “I asked Valerie’s assistant if it would be possible for her to come,” Mindy recalled. “I explained that it would be very meaningful after the referendum on the Shuls, and she came. It was the first event she attended as leader of the party.”

For the 2017 election, Mindy Pollak ran again in her district. Philipe Tomlinson, an outgoing and friendly father of two who had previously served as Mindy’s political attaché, ran for Borough Mayor. Pollak won her district decisively, as did Tomlinson. Projet Montreal’s candidates won two of the other three seats closely, including Valerie Patreau, who defeated Celine Forget by 207 votes.

“I’m very happy that the citizens of Outremont chose a path of working together rather than conflict with no end in sight,” said Pollak. “When I went door to door, people kept telling me how fed up they were with all the conflict.”

The future looks bright for the Jewish community in Outremont. With a clear majority, Pollak will be able to affect real change. “One of my priorities is to work on the bylaws targeting the Jewish community. Some of the restrictions will be simpler to change than others, and we will do our best to make sure we are passing fair laws,” she stressed.

One campaign promise from Projet Montreal’s Outremont team was creating a roundtable format involving citizens from all sectors, including local experts in various fields. “We want to tap into our citizens and figure out together how to best move forward,” said Pollak. “There’s a lot of positive actions we can do together. The communication between the borough council and the citizens is going to improve tremendously.”

BY: Rabbi Zvi Hershkowitz