MONTREAL — Mindy Pollak may have earned international acclaim for becoming the first chassidic woman elected to bea Montreal city councillor – or to any political office in Quebec – but not without arousing virulent resentment from some members of her own community.
Pollak, 24, who has been active in trying to heal the rift between the chassidim and their non-Jewish neighbours for the past two years, won the borough council seat in Outremont’s Claude Ryan district in the Nov. 3 municipal election.
But her candidacy was not welcome by the anonymous author or authors of a Yiddish open letter circulated before the election admonishing that a woman’s place is in the home.
The screed, signed by “Montreal Jewry,” was reproduced with an English translation on the website FailedMessiah.com on Nov. 5.
“Are we already so close to the goy, that all concepts that the lowly goy has determined to be part of his worldview, we have to make peace with and accept?” it asks, referring to women participating in politics.
The writer also said the very sight of a woman’s picture on campaign posters is immodest.
Pollak will sit on the borough council only, not at Montreal city hall. She is a member of the second-place Projet Montréal party, which is expected to form the opposition.
Pollak told The CJN, “I would rather not comment on the dirty side of the campaign. I won. Let’s focus on the positive.”
Pollak’s victory was significant for other reasons.
Her nearest rival in the Claude Ryan district was independent Pierre Lacerte, who has been a harsh critic of the chassidic communities for years.
There was also another Jewish candidate, Sheldon (Shloime) Goldberg, who is strictly Orthodox, but not chassidic, who ran on the team of Denis Coderre, who was elected mayor.
Pollak, a member of the Vishnitzer community, took 35 per cent of the vote compared to Lacerte’s 28 per cent, or 860 versus 692 votes.
Pollak, who is unmarried, appeared to be an early favourite from the time she declared her candidacy in July. She said she chose Projet Montréal because it was “the only clean party at the time – no corruption, no scandals” and had always been supportive of her bridge-building efforts.
The Claude Ryan race grew even more interesting with the entry in September of Goldberg, a volunteer with the Orthodox community’s Hatzolah emergency service. He came in third.
At more than 61 per cent, the borough had one of the highest voter turnouts in the city.
Right up until election day, the sizeable chassidic communities remained mum on which way they would vote, or even if they would act as a bloc.
Longtime chassidic community leader Alex Werzberger said several letters were distributed to homes and synagogues during the campaign objecting to electing a woman, but the one cited above was especially “vicious.”
“There was a bit of a split in the community, because some rabbis and other people felt they would rather have a man, that it would be a breach in the wall, so to speak, or that they would just be uncomfortable going to a woman,” Werzberger said.
“They were entitled to their opinion as much as anyone else. But that one was vicious, and represents only a small group. Naturally, there were other letters in favour of her” he added.
“But nobody wanted to see Lacerte elected, so, as can be seen, 70 to 75 per cent of the community voted for Pollak.”
Pollak is one of five Outremont councillors, including re-elected borough mayor Marie Cinq-Mars, the only one who will sit on Montreal city council.
Still uncertain at the end of election week was the final result in Outremont’s Joseph Beaubien district.
Independent Céline Forget, who like Lacerte, has long raised alarm over the Chassidim’s alleged violations of zoning, parking and other bylaws and the borough’s (previously a separate city’s) supposed laxity in enforcing the bylaws, was only 11 votes ahead of Projet Montréal’s Philipe Tomlinson. He had four business days from the official release of the ballot count on Nov. 5 to request a judicial recount.
Pollak co-founded Friends of Hutchison with neighbour Leah Marshy, who is of Palestinian descent, a grassroots association created in the aftermath of a bitter dispute two years ago over a chassidic shul’s plans to renovate and slightly expand on that street.
Lacerte, who operates the blog Accomodements Outremont, was a leading voice against the project, which went to a referendum that the congregation lost.
The Friends have held two public meetings, which have been unprecedented opportunities for citizens of all backgrounds to get to know each other better.
Since 2012, Pollak, an esthetician by occupation, has also sat on Outremont’s Committee on Intercommunity Relations.
Pollak said Projet Montréal wants to work toward bridging “the wide gap between the Outremont council administration and the chassidic community.”
At the grassroots level, Pollak thinks relations are improving. The non-Jewish votes she got indicate that inter-community relations are better than perceived, she believes.
“At the end of the day, we all want the same thing. We are talking to each other, helping each other. People are more aware of the need to work together,” she said.
Coderre found himself in hot water in the final couple of days of the campaign after a week-old video of him addressing a chassidic audience surfaced.
His opponents charged that he was engaging in blackmail and old-style tit-for-tat politics when he told his listeners: “If you want my friendship, if you want my support, don’t divide the vote,” reminding them that he is fighting against the proposed charter of Quebec values.
However, the Quebec Jewish Council, a body claiming to speak for chassidim, said that Coderre’s remarks were in no way interpreted as a threat and that the clip aired in the media was taken out of context.
In a press release, the council stated: “We asked Mr. Coderre his opinion on a letter that circulated within our community and in which the members were invited to divide the vote between the candidates of Mr. Coderre’s team and those of another political group,” said spokesperson Mayer Feig, refusing to elaborate.
“Mr. Coderre invited our community members to support his team by voting for all the candidates of Equipe Denis Coderre in Outremont.” Feig added that the meeting was private and a request was made at the beginning of it that no recording be made.
“We denounce the fact that a meeting in our community was used for partisan political ends,” Feig stated.
Voters in Outremont cast three ballots: for city mayor, for borough mayor, and for the councillor for one of four districts.