Reversing the current trend, the Museum of Jewish Montreal (MJM) has gone from virtual to actual, expanding its Internet presence to a bricks-and-mortar entity.
In June, MJM moved into its first physical home at 4040 St. Laurent Blvd., at Duluth Avenue, in the heart of the old Jewish neighbourhood.
“We started to see the limits of building a community just online. We would hold pop-up events and people came, but we never saw them again,” said Zev Moses, MJM’s founder and executive director. “We were not leveraging all our opportunities.”
MJM began in 2010 with funding from Federation CJA, which was looking to support innovative programs that would connect younger Jews to the community, those who were not attracted to more conventional activities.
MJM’s goal was to help preserve the legacy of Jewish Montreal through the latest technology.
Development of its MJM’s website, which is equally applicable to mobile devices, remains its core activity. Since 2011, MJM has been mapping the sites of Montreal Jewish history – its institutions, businesses and people – and collecting and sharing personal stories.
In recent years, MJM has been doing more in the “real world,” organizing exhibitions and cultural events. Its walking tours, focusing on the Jewish past and the current Jewish food scene, have become especially popular. They run daily through the summer.
MJM now has a base of operations for these activities, and other new ones it is toying with. But don’t expect a traditional museum that collects and displays objects, said Moses. For one thing there are few walls, and no place for storage.
But over time, a permanent exhibition may be created, he added.
Right now there are photos up of former synagogues in the Plateau and Mile End and, from the street, passersby can see archival pictures of everyday Montreal Jewish life from yesteryear posted in the windows.
The new home provides office space for the staff, which includes five permanent people and the half-dozen or so interns, guides and researchers working mainly in the summer.
Moses hopes MJM will now also be able to attract volunteers – of all ages.
The space is a corner storefront in what was originally the Vineberg building, later the Berman building, a multi-storey garment factory dating back to 1904 or 1904, said Moses.
In the 1980s, it was taken over by an artists’ collective and its upper floors are studios and residences.
MJM has 1,200 square feet that has been completely renovated and is flooded with natural light on two sides.
Since July, it has been dominated by the kitchen and counter of Fletchers, its “espace culinaire” named for Fletcher’s Field, the former name of Jeanne Mance Park, east of Mount Royal, which was a respite for Jews living in crowded housing years ago.
Fletchers serves light meals and is a place for food-centred programming, mostly run by The Wandering Chew, another unconventional project launched with the federation aid in 2013. Its mission is to research and nurture appreciation for the diversity of Jewish cuisine through pop-up dinners and workshops.
Like MJM itself, Fletchers is open Tuesday through Sunday, from 10 a.m.-5 p.m., serving modern takes, all made in-house, on Jewish cooking around the world – as long as it is vegetarian or fish.
On a recent visit, the menu featured, for example, a gefilte fish sandwich on challah, “Montreal-style” knishes, and a dessert of rosewater ice cream with massafan, the traditional Iraqi star-shaped cookies flavoured with almond and cardamom.
MJM has a small boutique selling eclectic Montreal Jewish-related products such as poetry books by Irving Layton and packets of Montreal steak spice.
MJM remains an independent, non-profit organization and the federation is still a funder. Moses said MJM now relies on more private donations and, significantly, government grants, notably federal cultural grants.
The annual budget is now in the $500,000 range.
Moses said MJM is benefiting from the somewhat depressed economic conditions on St. Laurent, although this is still a lively strip with places like Schwartz, just a stone’s throw away.
MJM is providing a certain diplomatic role for the Jewish community in the area. Anyone is welcome to drop in and chat.
“A lot of people come in because they have some Jewish connection or want to tell their story,” Moses said. “One of our goals is to expand our reach to the broader Quebec society. We do see this as a kind of community building, that may inspire ideas for new programming.”
MJM is looking to partner with other organizations in programming, and the space may be rented out. In late August, MJM will be the venue for three cabaret evenings presented with KlezKanada, for example.
The four different walking tours will continue through the fall, on the weekends and possibly once or twice through the week.