Home-based shuls in Côte St. Luc are getting an ultimatum: Register as legal, or start worshipping elsewhere soon

One of the strip malls where home-based synagogues can relocate in Cote St. Luc.

The city of Côte St. Luc, which has a majority Jewish population, is preparing what amounts to an ultimatum to places of worship that illegally operate out of residential properties: either regularize your status or find a new location.

The proliferation of “non-conforming” home-based shuls has gone on for too long, said Mayor Mitchell Brownstein, and is no longer acceptable to residents at large.

At its May 9 meeting, the council unanimously gave final approval to a bylaw that expands the alternative locations available to these shuls—it is not known precisely how many there are—should they have to move out of their present site.

Bylaw 2217 allows places of worship to operate in four buildings, mostly strip malls, previously zoned exclusively for commercial use. The owners, of course, have to be willing to rent or offer space to them.

There were no requests from residents to open a register prior to this rezoning, as provincial law stipulates, Brownstein said.

With this “first step” bylaw now in effect, the controversial phase of the city’s objective goes forward. Brownstein and councillor Mike Cohen said they have already received numerous letters from residents concerned about what happens next.

On first reading at last month’s council meeting, the second step, Bylaw 2596, was adopted by a 5-2 vote. It outlines the way each existing place of worship in dwellings in residential-only zones can become legal, provided their neighbours ultimately agree to it.

Brownstein characterized the intent as adding to, rather than taking away from, the rights of these Jewish congregations, as the proposed bylaw will offer them the chance to stay where they are, while it “ensures that Côte St. Luc continues to be a place where religious prayer is welcome…in the proper zones.”

Councillor Lior Azerad, who voted against the bylaw along with Sidney Benizri, however, criticized it as “targeting the Orthodox community” and argued that “religious institutions are the backbone of Côte St. Luc” and increase the value of surrounding residential properties. One councillor was absent for the vote.

Many residents have objected to these home-based synagogues, citing traffic and noise, as well as the fact they are not paying taxes.

Previous administrations have for decades tolerated these shuls, said Brownstein, but with their numbers growing in recent years, many residents do not. He said it’s possible those that have been there 20 or 30 years and are “well integrated” in the community would be accepted by the neighbours.

“We are trying to address the situation in the nicest, kindest way,” said Brownstein. “We are offering an olive branch which we expect the religious institutions to take advantage of.”

Briefly, Bylaw 2596 would allow for a spot rezoning of a specific property in a residential area, a temporary status that would be revoked if the place of worship left the property.

In the case of shuls that do not apply for legalization or do not get the necessary support from nearby residents, Brownstein said the council “will be forced to act.”

“They will not be shut down the next day,” he said, but they will have to relocate to a permitted zone, either institutional, perhaps merging with a conforming synagogue, or commercial.

Deputy mayor Dida Berku noted that five years ago she and Brownstein met with rabbis of these congregations to try to find an “amicable” solution. Not only was that unsuccessful, she said, but since then more houses and duplexes have been converted into places of worship.

Berku said there is also a safety consideration. These dwellings were not designed to accommodate 50 or 100 people on a regular basis nor are they necessarily meeting other security standards.

With the adoption of Bylaw 2217, one of those shuls, a Hasidic Belz congregation, has automatically become legal. It is located in one of the four named commercial properties, the Adar building on Westminster Avenue.

A second reading of Bylaw 2596 is expected at next month’s council meeting with a public consultation slated for June 20. A register is not required to be opened for this type of rezoning, Berku said.

Cohen said residents need the facts because “a lot of broken telephone” is spreading “doomsday scenarios.”

“The last thing we need is to divide our community,” he said.