Tensions high as Outremont considers houses of worship restrictions

Outremont Theatre WIKIPEDIA PHOTO

Chassidic community members charge that they will be “ghettoized” if Outremont goes ahead with a plan to ban new houses of worship on two of the borough’s main commercial arteries.

Opponents speaking at a tense Dec. 1 public consultation on proposed zoning bylaw amendments affecting areas around Laurier and Bernard avenues said the borough is “targeting” Chassidim and acquiescing to certain residents who are prejudiced against them.

Borough Mayor Marie Cinq-Mars denied that the rezoning is aimed at restricting Chassidim, saying it applies to all religious institutions. She also took exception to complaints that she had failed to contain “hatred” expressed by supporters of the ban during the more than three-hour meeting attended by close to 300 people.

Nearly 50 people registered to speak.

Four of the five councillors voted in favour of the amendments on first reading last month, with Mindy Pollak, who is chassidic, the sole dissenter. The proposed bylaw was scheduled to go to second reading on Dec. 7.

Borough says goal is to “revitalize” commercial activity

Residents will then be able to sign a register, and if there are the required number of signatures, a referendum may be held.

The borough says the goal is to “revitalize” commercial activity. Cinq-Mars pointed out that several other boroughs have adopted similar restrictions on religious institutions in their commercial districts.

Opponents say the borough has not provided evidence that curtailing synagogues would improve business on those streets, and that no impartial study has been done. They accused it of rushing through the changes without having consulted those most affected beforehand.

Existing houses of worship in the four zones affected can remain. Thirteen other zones will continue to be open to new religious institutions, and council intends to add another one in the northwest end of the borough, near the train tracks.

Chassidim argue that they need more synagogues for their growing numbers, and in districts near where they live, including the affected zones. Close to 20 per cent of Outremont’s population is Jewish, according to 2011 data.

Some of the other 13 zones are really single sites, they say, where religious buildings are already located. The proposed additional zone is not near their neighbourhood and is objectionable for other reasons.

“Cornering these establishments into a tiny space against the railway tracks is geographically problematic,” Max Lieberman said before the meeting. “For both practical and social reasons, the chassidic community and other religious groups as well will find ourselves in a sort of ghetto where traffic, congestion and street safety could be a logistical nightmare.”

A non-chassidic opponent, Sharon Freedman, who does not live in Outremont, suggested being near a railway yard would invoke memories of Holocaust deportations.

Chassid Hirsch Hershber said it’s usually “houses of ill repute” that are relegated to the outskirts of town.

At the outset, Cinq-Mars warned the audience that comments had to be on topic, not derogatory, and that no applause or other noise would be allowed. Several times she had to call for order, and both public security staff and police were close by.

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There was audible discontent from the audience after chassidic intervenors spoke in English. Cinq-Mars told participants to speak in French “if they can,” but allowed English to continue to be used otherwise.

The most strained moment came early, when Jean Larin, a 31-year resident, said the issue is the conflict between two fundamentally different visions of what Outremont is to become.

The majority, he claimed, are secular and looking to the future, while the Chassidim are stuck in the past and have values and customs that are not in line with the majority. Worse, he claimed that they “systematically” flout bylaws and “want to create a religious enclave,” suggestions that provoked applause.

Ginette Chartré said about 20 synagogues, plus six “illegal” ones, are enough, and handed in a pro-amendment petition she said had 226 signatures.

The rhetoric was also inflated at times on the other side. Anti-Jewish laws leading to the Holocaust were recalled, as well as the recent Paris terrorism.

“I don’t know how you can sleep at night,” said Abraham Eckstein to Cinq-Mars.

“They don’t like us, they want us to disappear”

Mayer Feig, a frequent spokesperson for the chassidic community, charged that the council was avoiding the “underlying issue” in this debate. He later explained that he was referring to “the 10 or so people who come to every council meeting with an agenda” against the Chassidim. “They don’t like us, they want us to disappear,” he said.

Mayer Feig, right, confers with Cheskie Weiss at a public consultation in Outremont over proposed zoning amendments JANICE ARNOLD PHOTO
Mayer Feig, right, confers with Cheskie Weiss at a public consultation in Outremont over proposed zoning amendments JANICE ARNOLD PHOTO

Other Chassidim offered reasoned arguments, including Ben Wachsmer, who suggested the presence of more houses of worship would increase business. He owns a store on Park Avenue, in neighbouring Plateau Mont-Royal, and said his trade has increased and new stores have opened since the two synagogues came on what had been a depressed block.

A non-Jewish opponent, Elizabeth Ball, said she doesn’t see why people can’t “pray and shop on the same street,” while another, Diane Shea, accused the council of creating unnecessary division and lacking sensitivity to the Chassidim.

Although several speakers came with questions, Cinq-Mars said only those of a “technical” nature would be entertained. The borough continues to accept written comments on the matter.

Pollak said before the meeting that she has been calling on the borough to research the issue and consider more than one approach to its zoning policies.

“As elected officials, we should take our urban planning seriously and ensure that our decisions are based on facts and the needs of the population,” she said. “We need real expertise on how commercial vitality and religious activity can relate to one another in a positive way.”