Museum of Jewish Montreal finds a new home after two-year pandemic hiatus

The façade of the Museum of Jewish Montreal’s new premises at 5220 St. Laurent Blvd. (Credit: Immophoto)

In June 2020 the future of the Museum of Jewish Montreal (MJM) looked bleak: shuttered since March due to the pandemic, it now had been evicted by a new landlord.

Executive director Zev Moses, who founded MJM 10 years earlier, admits things were at a nadir for this centre of Jewish creativity in the heart of the old Jewish neighbourhood.  He put up a brave front, vowing MJM would find another location.

Two years later Moses can barely contain his excitement describing what will be the MJM’s home “for a very long time.”

MJM has signed a lease for an historic building at 5220 St. Laurent Blvd., which was a trendy 24-hour restaurant/bar/cultural venue called Le Lux from 1984 to 1996. Built in 1914, this Mile End landmark originally housed a furniture store and garment factories upstairs, and in the 1920s, was home to a synagogue and Talmud Torah.

At 10,000-square-feet, the building is almost 10 times the size of MJM’s former premises at 4040 St. Laurent, which will permit a vast expansion of programming, including more space for exhibitions and performances, workshops and education.

From the outside the building, near Fairmount Avenue, is an unremarkable three-storey storefront. The interior, however, is breathtaking. Completely made over during the Lux era, the airy space is capped by a glass dome surrounded by mirrors that refract natural light down to the ground floor. Dramatic elliptical staircases with gleaming steel balustrades connect the high-ceilinged levels.

The central foyer of the new Museum of Jewish Montreal is illuminated by a rooftop glass dome. (Credit: Immophoto)

The upper floors will be renovated starting this winter and a grand opening is planned for later next year, said Moses, but the new MJM will hold special events starting in July, including a contemporary art exhibition in October.

This location has “the potential to become a hub for grassroots Jewish cultural life in Montreal where emerging and established artists, chefs, musicians, researchers, workshop leaders, young adults and partner organizations can create together,” said Moses.

How this gem fell into the hands of MJM is truly bashert. After carrying on online (even its Jewish heritage walking tours went virtual), MJM announced last August that a former bar/apartment a few blocks north at 4281 St. Laurent, about four times the size of 4040, had been found.

This followed MJM’s first fundraiser (virtual) a month earlier featuring renowned American food writer Ruth Reichl. MJM had made a name as a foodie destination through its eatery that served updated Jewish fare and food-related programming.

Architectural plans were still being worked on when the owner of that property suggested this latest site, which he had recently acquired, would be better—not only larger but designed for what MJM was looking for.

Indeed, “it was just too good to pass up,” said Moses.

MJM is reconnecting the building to its Jewish roots. It’s also in the midst of the Jewish present; 5220 is close to such icons as Fairmount Bagel and Wilensky’s diner. Mile End is home to a younger Jewish generation, and, of course, the Hasidic community is nearby, Moses pointed out.

The building has been inaccessible to the public since Le Lux folded. Most recently, a film production company had offices there.

“We’re excited to breathe new life into a space that has a long legacy of creativity and gathering,” he said.

While 5220 needs considerable work, the landlord, a Jewish community member who wishes to be unnamed, is assuming the bulk of the cost, said Moses.

Moses, 38, a rabbi’s son who studied urban planning at the University of Pennsylvania, was influenced by the ROI Community, an international effort to nurture young social entrepreneurs motivated by Jewish values.

He launched the nonprofit MJM when new media offered novel possibilities for connection. MJM began as an interactive platform that encouraged young people to delve into Montreal’s Jewish history and culture.

In 2016 MJM extended its reach into the physical, renting a small street-level space, not to become a conventional museum, rather to provide a focal point for young Jewish adults who might not be interested in other community offerings.

Despite being physically apart the past two years, Moses said the MJM “ecosystem” has actually grown through its virtual activities.

MJM encourages young people to come up with projects exploring their Jewish identity. A micro-grant program for those aged 18-35 has been particularly successful in supporting emerging creators in spheres from visual arts and music to graphic novels and cuisine.

MJM also tries to make the public more aware of the Jewish community, its contributions to the city and its diversity.

The pandemic shutdown hit MJM hard financially: the tours and rental of its premises were major revenue generators. Federal pandemic relief programs allowed it to maintain staff, said Moses, and tours resumed this spring, but sales are about 75 per cent of what they were pre-pandemic, he said.

The rest of MJM’s budget comes from government grants and private donations. An endowment fund established last year has reached over a million dollars.

“Sometimes I thought I was crazy to keep going, and then an opportunity like this comes along. But this is not a one-man show,” Moses stressed. “Our staff, volunteers and board have kept us afloat.”

“We have all worked hard to make this day a reality and we’re excited to further develop and grow as an arts and cultural space in Montreal,” said Elana Ludman, MJM board president. “This home allows us to realize that dream.”