MONTREAL — Cote des Neiges-Notre Dame de Grâce councillor Jeremy Searle issued a qualified apology for his accusation that a Chabad rabbi and certain councillors who supported a proposed housing development for the site of a former church were using “Jewish guilt” to deter area residents who opposed the project.
At the May 2 borough meeting, Searle read a statement that made it clear he was not apologizing to those individuals, but rather to the Jewish community.
At the previous borough meeting on April 4, the independent councillor lashed out at those who, he said, accused opponents of the project of being motivated by anti-Semitism.
At that meeting, the council voted to withdraw its support for the demolition of the former St. Columba Church and the construction of seven attached houses, after two years of contentious public consultation. Searle was against the development from the outset.
“I want to begin by apologizing to all those I inadvertently offended with my comments,” Searle stated. “I realize that I painted the whole Jewish community with the same brush, which is unfair, offensive and was never my intention…
“Please hear me when I state emphatically that I am in no way anti-Jewish. The mother of my [two] children is Jewish and Judaism is the heritage my children identify with.”
Searle said that what he wanted to do in his April 4 remarks was to “draw a connection between Chabad NDG’s vested interest in pushing for the development project and the suspicious timing of the unfounded accusations against the neighbours living on Hingston [Avenue].”
At the April 4 meeting, Chabad NDG director Rabbi Yisroel Bernath said users of the centre, which has been located for almost three years in the former hall adjacent to the church, have been the targets of “harassment, demonization and bigotry,” that they have been “bullied” and “watched, photographed and held to unreasonable scrutiny.” Chabad received numerous complaints of noise and other nuisances from neighbours, he said.
The developers’ plan was to maintain that hall, where Chabad is a rent-free tenant.
Searle insisted on May 2 that he wants Chabad to continue to operate in that location.
“I want Chabad to make a permanent home in NDG, and if their serious allegations of anti-Semitic harassment are valid, then I want these alleged crimes dealt with by the police without delay,” he said.
“What I don’t want is the opposition of the neighbours and myself to be taken out of context and twisted into something it is not.”
He deplored that “some” used the charge of anti-Semitism to “derail the real conversation about the pros and cons” of the now-abandoned project.
Besides Rabbi Bernath, he later identified borough mayor Russell Copeman and councillors Lionel Perez and Marvin Rotrand as those for whom he intended his April 4 charges.
On March 17, 224 area residents signed a public registry to oppose the project, well above the minimum of 166 that would have forced a referendum on the issue under Quebec law.
The century-old church property was bought from the Anglican diocese by a development group, headed by Robert Blatt and David Kakon, in 2013. Blatt himself told The CJN in March that he found it “very upsetting” that “the Jewish element” was brought up by opponents he had heard. He said many told him they were concerned the seven houses were being reserved for those associated with the Chabad centre.
Searle looks at it differently. He stated of the registry results: “This exercise in grassroots democracy against an insensitive, tone-deaf council is a total victory for the community.”
People were opposed primarily because they want the church preserved and used for some kind of social or recreational purpose, Searle told The CJN. He favours the property being bought by the city.
The neighbours might have accepted a residential project if the design was appropriate to this historic neighbourhood and did not look like something that “belonged in Boucherville,” Searle said, referring to a Montreal suburb.
Rabbi Bernath did not attend the borough meeting, and Noah Sidel, acting as spokesperson for Chabad NDG, told The CJN on May 3 that it has no comment on Searle’s statement.
Chabad launched a fundraising campaign last month to buy the hall, saying it must come up with the money by the end of May. Rabbi Bernath said the goal was at least $800,000, which with the $500,000 Chabad has in the bank, would be enough to make a down payment and support a mortgage.
Sidel said on May 3 that the campaign is proceeding.
Searle, who said he has been the subject of hateful messages on social media, regretted that Rabbi Bernath did not come to the borough meeting.
“The cowardly rabbi has demonized me successfully to raise funds for his faith community. Now he lacks the courage to face me in public,” he said.