Rohr Chabad of NDG has launched a public fundraising campaign to buy the former church hall it occupies from the real estate developers that own it. Chabad says it must be in a position to make an acceptable offer by the end of May.
Director Rabbi Yisroel Bernath told The CJN on April 19 that “ideally” he would like to raise $1 million, but “realistically” he expects at least the $800,000 needed to make the down payment.
With that, and the $500,000 it has in hand, Rabbi Bernath believes Chabad is in a position to support a mortgage and maintain the building, which is about 100 years old.
However, by that date, Chabad was still in negotiations with the developers, led by Robert Blatt, over the price.
Chabad has been in the property on Hingston Avenue since September 2013 as a rent-free tenant. It finds itself “in limbo” since the Côte des Neiges-Notre Dame de Grâce borough council earlier this month withdrew its approval of the developers’ planned housing project on the site, following strong opposition from nearby residents.
The developers have not made public their intentions, but Rabbi Bernath said he knows that they have received offers for the property. Chabad has been given “the first right of refusal,” which means that Chabad has first dibs, if it can match other offers, said Rabbi Bernath, underlining that he considers the developers “friends.”
Chabad of NDG, founded by Rabbi Bernath in 2008, was previously located in three different rented storefronts on Monkland Avenue. It was looking for a permanent home of its own when it entered into an agreement with the developers in 2013 that allowed it to occupy the hall with the understanding Chabad would buy it from the developers within 18 months, or by about March 2015. That did not happen.
The hall is adjacent to the former St. Columba Church, which was sold by the Anglican diocese to the developers in 2012 and has remained empty since then.
In the April 18 announcement of the online campaign, Chabad appealed to “the local, national and international community” to help “a synagogue under attack from [a] local elected city councillor.”
That refers to the tirade at the April 4 borough council meeting by Jeremy Searle, an opponent of the housing project. He charged that Chabad was resorting to “the overused Jewish guilt argument” and insinuations of anti-Semitism to deter the opposition.
In March, 224 residents signed a borough registry opposing the project, well above the minimum that, by law, would have forced a referendum, unless the council retreated.
The developers’ plan was to demolish the main church building and construct seven townhouses, while preserving the hall and allowing Chabad to remain there – although under what terms was not made known.
The project faced fierce opposition for various reasons – the loss of a heritage site and the style of the proposed housing, among them – but neighbours have also complained about Chabad’s presence from the outset, as well as about noise and other nuisances.
Chabad uses the hall for Shabbat services and holds classes and other activities through the week. An unaffiliated daycare centre, there for more than 30 years, remains upstairs, and Chabad, as “manager” of the hall, has made the premises available to various local community groups for a nominal fee.
While he said he’s “an eternal optimist,” Rabbi Bernath said if Chabad is unable to buy the hall, its options are severely limited.
He assumes that a new owner would not allow Chabad to remain there, whatever their eventual plans for the property.
He has looked at other places in NDG, but not found anything suitable, either to buy or rent.
Chabad of NDG, which also serves Concordia University’s Loyola campus, has seen a steady growth in its participants, most of them not Lubavitchers – that’s why it has moved so often.
He said the centre needs at least 3,000 square feet of open space for large gatherings, plus a kitchen and another smaller room. The hall, which provides 3,800 square feet, is ideal and the location is good.
“I saw a place on Sherbrooke, but it was only 2,200 square feet and it was all subdivided,” he said.
He believes Chabad is meeting a need in the area, noting that, according to Federation CJA statistics, there are more than 6,000 Jews living in NDG. There are 1,400 addresses on its mailing list, he said.
Rabbi Bernath, a Chicago native, deplores that a district known for “peaceful coexistence across cultural and religious lines” has been riven by what he sees as the hostility of some residents and the inflammatory accusations made by Searle.
“For an elected official to accuse people of such a thing as [instilling] ‘Jewish guilt’ is just horrible to me,” Rabbi Bernath said. “It’s scary that someone could single out a religious or cultural group like this.
“Nobody from our community ever said a word about anti-Semitism in this debate. It was Mr. Searle who introduced this concept.”
He said many people remained disturbed by the veteran councillor’s remarks and his lack of apology or clarification, and he expects Searle will be questioned at the next borough meeting on May 2.
“We need to fight back and let Mr. Searle and anyone else who would say such things know we won’t be intimidated,” said Rabbi Bernath.