Montreal community a beacon of interfaith harmony

Jacques Saada, right, clasps hands with Abbé Rémi Bourdon, left, and Muslim leader Mohamed Yacoub
Jacques Saada, right, clasps hands with Abbé Rémi Bourdon, left, and Muslim leader Mohamed Yacoub JANICE ARNOLD PHOTO

MONTREAL – Its membership barely numbers 100 households, but the South Shore Jewish Community (SSJC) has gained a reputation for goodwill toward its neighbours and even as something of a trailblazer in interfaith engagement.

That was evident at the 21-year-old organization’s recent annual gala at the Quality Inn in Brossard.

SSJC president Jacques Saada was especially honoured by the attendance of representatives of the Catholic diocese, with which there has been long contact, and of the growing Muslim community, a more recent interlocutor.

Abbé Rémi Bourdon of the Diocèse St. Jean-Longueuil, which encompasses a large territory, and Mohamed Yacoub, president of the Centre communautaire musulman de Brossard, clasped hands with Saada in a show of fraternity.

READ: The importance of interfaith dialogue

Health and Social Services Minister Gaétan Barrette, the area MNA for La Pinière, and Israeli Consul General Ziv Nevo Kulman were guest speakers. Liberal MPs Alexandra Mendès (Brossard-St. Lambert), Sherry Romanado (Longueuil-Charles LeMoyne) and Jean-Claude Poissant (La Prairie), as well as La Prairie Liberal MNA Richard Merlini and Rabbi Avi Finegold, director of the Montreal Board of Rabbis, also attended.

“We are not strong electorally, so we are touched immensely by this show of respect,” said Saada, a former area Liberal MP and member of Prime Minister Paul Martin’s cabinet.

Saada, a Tunisian-born Sephardi who has lived in St. Lambert since immigrating from France in 1969, stressed that the SSJC is “open and inclusive.”

It counts among its members Ashkenazim and Sephardim, anglophones and francophones, immigrants and native born, the observant and the secular. A significant number are interfaith families, and they are equally welcome. This diversity necessitates a continuous search for a modus vivendi, much like it does being a very small Jewish community.

Saada believes the SSJC is succeeding. “We have our differences, but we are united…All can contribute to our [Jewish] identity.”

The SSJC is not a congregation, but it does organize High Holiday services, other festival celebrations, and social and cultural activities through the year. Since 2003, it has had its own premises in the Place La Citière shopping centre in La Prairie.

Donations raised from a variety of private sources and modest annual fees keep it going, but it’s not easy, Saada admits.

Outreach to the other Jews believed to live in the vast territory stretching south from the St. Lawrence River to the U.S. border, east to the Eastern Townships and west almost to Ontario, is a perennial challenge. Retaining the current membership is no less of a task, since it is aging and tends to be transient, moving to Montreal or out of the province.

Saada said SSJC members are proud of who they are and therefore open to others. “You don’t have to be big to be a model, and we are a model for the world.”

Barrette agreed the SSJC is an example of how people can and do live together in the region, as well as of the resilience and engagement with society that has characterized the Jewish people throughout history. He noted that Jews are one of 65 cultural communities in a population of 82,000 in La Pinière riding.

Nevo Kulman was struck by the convivial ambience, and suggested the Middle East could learn from the SSJC and its neighbours.

“You inspire us with how everyone gets along,” he said. “I hope this lesson in peace reaches the Middle East.”

Board member Jonathan Slater, who MCed the event and leads the interfaith outreach efforts, told The CJN that the SSJC has had a warm relationship with the area’s Catholic diocese for about a decade, and hopes to build upon the overture from the growing Muslim community.

He and other SSJC members took part in an around-the-clock reading of the Bible over seven days at the St. Antoine de Padue Cathedral in Longueuil earlier this year, for instance. After Bishop Lionel Gendron read the opening passages of Genesis, the Jewish guests continued in Hebrew, French and English, he said.

READ: Students learn about each other at interfaith seder

The SSJC reciprocated by organizing a mock seder on Palm Sunday at a Catholic centre in Brossard that was attended by about 180 people. Slater, who just became director of Jewish studies at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Plattsburgh, taught them the basics of the Passover dinner rituals and even showed how to make matzah balls. Slater, a New York City native, majored in French at university, and is fully bilingual.

Slater, who also chairs the journalism and public relations department at SUNY to which he commutes daily from his Brossard home, said he has never known anti-Semitism in the approximately 13 years he has belonged to the SSJC.

“There have never been any incidents,” he said. “Just the opposite, we feel quite at home and are delighted by the goodwill shown us.”

He has been living on the South Shore since he married a local woman, Linda Caron, a francophone Catholic, in 1991.

Slater has also made some contact with the local non-Catholic Christian, as well as Hindu, Buddhist and First Nation communities.