Côte des Neiges-Notre Dame de Grâce borough councillor Jeremy Searle accused a Chabad rabbi of invoking anti-Semitism and trying to instil “Jewish guilt” in opponents of a proposed housing project on the site of the former St. Columba Church.
The April 4 borough meeting turned ugly after Rabbi Yisroel Bernath, director of Rohr Chabad of NDG, which occupies the hall adjacent to the main church building on Hingston Avenue, said the users of the centre have been the targets of “harassment, demonization and bigotry.”
Searle said the opponents have “put forward arguments, whether valid or not” as to why they are against the project that would have seen the main building demolished and seven townhouses built, while maintaining the hall.
Chabad has been in the hall since September 2013 as rent-free tenants of the property’s owners, the developers of the site.
Those in favour of the project, according to Searle, have not made any argument, rather “just repeated the song of anti-Semitism… This is the Jewish guilt approach… because it’s Jewish, you can’t say anything against it… [It’s] being used for all its worth.”
He termed it “a vicious smear campaign.”
Searle didn’t stop there. If it is accusing opponents of a hate crime, he said, Chabad should press charges and prove anti-Semitism, which he denied had anything to do with the issue.
Searle said he opposed the project because the contemporary design of the houses presented by the developers, principally Robert Blatt and David Kakon, did not fit into the neighbourhood where the high-value homes are often a century old. He said a more suitable project, including the demolition of the hall, would likely have the neighbours’ support.
Searle was reprimanded by borough mayor Russell Copeman and councillors Lionel Perez and Marvin Rotrand for his accusation. Rotrand said he was “personally offended” and Perez denounced it as “inappropriate and wrong.”
Searle was alone among the six council members in voting against a motion tabled by Copeman at that meeting to withdraw the council’s support for the development project.
Copeman said that in light of the fact 224 residents had signed a register on March 17 in opposition to the project, well above the 166 minimum, the council had only two choices: hold a referendum on the issue, which “I do not believe would be in the best interests of the borough,” or abandon the rezoning bylaw.
“I’m disappointed, because I thought it was a good project,” he said, adding that the former church has limited heritage value, a reason many opponents have cited.
Chabad’s future in the property is uncertain now. The developers have not made known their intentions.
Chabad’s understanding with the developers in 2013 was that it would buy out its share of the property within 18 months. Chabad estimated at the time that it would need to raise about $1 million to cover the purchase and renovations to the property, which is about a century old.
That did not happen, because even if Chabad had the money, it could not makethe purchase because the cadastre (land registry) had not divided the property in two, and that would not happen until the developers secured the rezoning, Rabbi Bernath told The CJN.
At the borough meeting, which was held at Federation CJA’s Gelber centre, Rabbi Bernath said that over the past two years, Chabad has been the target of “exaggerated and unfounded complaints… We have been watched, photographed and held to unreasonable scrutiny” by residents.
Adam Atlas, a resident of the Hingston block where the hall is located who described himself as “disinterested” in the project, blamed prejudice against Chabad as the main factor in this controversy.
“This is principally an anti-Jewish movement to keep a specific community off the street… les Hassidim,” said Atlas, a former chair of Canadian Jewish Congress, Quebec region.
Most of those who came to Chabad’s activities are not Lubavitchers.
Perez, a Montreal executive committee member, said he has seen the debate “evolve” from mainly complaints that Chabad’s presence represents a “nuisance” and even a security risk, and is bringing “unwanted elements into the neighbourhood,” to being more about the need to preserve a heritage site.
Copeman declined to assign a blanket motive to the opposition, but did recall the disturbing incident at a public consultation last October, when a man made a Nazi salute at him. He said that was “clearly anti-Semitic” and reported the incident to police.
Diane Chambers, a 38-year resident of Beaconsfield Avenue, said that she signed the register because she felt the houses’ design did not fit in, and that the entrance to the proposed underground garage was in an unsafe location.
The day after the meeting, a shaken Rabbi Bernath said he was “shocked” by Searle’s comments.
“I purposely have not raised anti-Semitism. I’m not here to define the narrative of people,” he said, but reiterated that certain people have harassed Chabad participants and that he has reported incidents to the police.
As to where Chabad goes from here, he said, “We are definitely in limbo. The developers are not sure what they are going to do.”
Today, Chabad is almost in a financial position to acquire the hall. “We do have money for a down payment and a mortgage is in place. We just need another $100,000 to make it work.”
However, that is probably moot at this point. Rabbi Bernath said the developers have offered to sell Chabad the entire property, but with a price tag of close to $2 million, that is “a very big decision.”
Chabad also has to consider whether it wants to remain in an environment that it perceives as often hostile.
“The Jews of NDG love us, and I believe there is a silent majority that like us [among residents in general],” he said.
Rabbi Bernath also thinks leaving would in a way be giving in to the more aggressive opponents and would not solve anything.
Peter McQueen, the district’s councillor, extended a welcome to Chabad to stay where it is and “carry on your religious, cultural and communities activities.”