Jewish hairdresser in Sabbath dispute wins legal battle

Richard Zilberg
Richard Zilberg

A Montreal hairstylist said he feels vindicated by a decision of the Quebec Human Rights Tribunal, which ordered his former employer to pay $12,500 in damages for forbidding him to work on the Sabbath and for later dismissing him from his job.

Richard Zilber says “Jewish pride” and a desire to ensure that no one should face discrimination, even if it originates with someone of the same faith, prompted him to take his employer before a Quebec human rights commission.

“A Jew has zero tolerance for discrimination, even if it’s among your own people,” Zilberg told The CJN.

“I stood up for my rights and it has nothing to do with not being proud of being Jewish,” he said. “A Jew does not accept discrimination.”

Despite the June 27 ruling, Zilberg, who has been working in the hair styling industry for 34 years, has not received any compensation.

The case prompted headlines around the world, largely because of the unusual circumstance in which a Jewish employee took his Jewish employer before a human rights body because the employer did not want the employee to work on Shabbat.

But according to the Human Rights Tribunal, which based its decision on  the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms, an employer can’t impose their religious values on their employee.

“The decision to forbid Mr. Zilberg to work on the Sabbath because he is Jewish violates his right to equality in employment due to his religion,” stated Judge Yvan Nolet in a 16-page bilingual decision.


Nolet ruled that Zilberg’s subsequent dismissal, after he told clients of his boss’ decision, was based “in part, on religious grounds.”

“The decision to forbid Mr. Zilberg to work on the Sabbath because he is Jewish violates his rights to freedom of conscience and religion as well as to the safeguard of his dignity and the respect for his private life,” Nolet concluded.

Zilberg, 54, began working at Spa Orazen, owned by Iris Gressy, in October 2011, as a hair colourist and stylist.

He worked approximately 30 hours a week, including Saturdays, which Nolet noted was “the busiest day of the week at the salon, thus enabling him to establish his clientele.”

In the spring of 2012, Gressy suggested that Zilberg doesn’t work on Saturday.

“In mid July 2012, Ms. Gressy inform[ed] Mr. Zilberg that he will no longer be working on Saturdays, in accordance with her new policy whereby her Jewish employees are not permitted to work on the Sabbath.” She also instructed him to tell clients Saturday was his usual day off, Nolet wrote.

About a month later, Gressy learned that Zilberg told a client that he was not permitted to work on Saturday. Gressy accused Zilberg of a breach of confidentiality and following an argument, fired him on the spot.

Zilberg enlisted the assistance of the Center for Research-Action on Race Relations, which filed a complaint of religious discrimination in December 2012 on his behalf with Quebec’s Human Rights Commission (QHRC). The Commission upheld the complaint in 2015 and recommended that Gressy and the salon pay Zilberg $20,000 in damages.

Since neither the business nor Gressy had responded to the complaint, the case was brought before the tribunal for adjudication. Nolet reduced the damages to $12,500, including $2,500 in punitive damages

Despite being served with notice, neither Gressy nor the salon was represented at any of the proceedings.

According to the Gazette, Grassy’s salon on Queen Mary Road changed its name from Spa Orazen to Spa Liv Zen, but is now out of business.

Tamara Thermitus, president of the QHRC, said in a statement that, “This judgment is a reminder that an employer cannot impose different working conditions on an employee on the basis of his or her religion.”

Avi Benlolo, CEO of Friends of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, said, “I thought the outcome was fair. It’s too bad it had to get to that.

“We’re talking here about human rights, decency, compassion for each other, and complying with the law. You cannot forbid an employee from working a shift for the reasons given. It’s a matter of common sense,” he said.

Rabbi Saul Emanuel, secretary of the Beth Din of Montreal, said without hearing the evidence from both sides, he couldn’t predict how the rabbinical court would rule if such a case came before it. However, “I don’t remember a case of this nature coming before a Beth Din.

“As Jews, we are encouraged and encourage others to do the right thing in terms of Torah observance. However, we cannot coerce people into doing what they don’t want to do.”

“It’s always recommended within the community that people take their disputes to the Beth din. But if people decide not to do that, it’s their choice,” Rabbi Emanuel added.

Zilberg said his pride in being Jewish motivated him to stand up for his rights. “She tried to leverage my income and my livelihood so that she could satisfy her beliefs, completely disregarding that I should be free in my own spirituality,” he said.

Zilberg acknowledged that some in the Jewish community are uncomfortable with the case, believing it should have been handled in house – perhaps in a Beit Din – rather than being  brought before a provincial tribunal.

But, he says, “Not only am I Jewish, I’m Canadian also. Isn’t it true that a Jew has to respect the law of the land he lives in? A Jew here in Canada has to respect Canadian law.”