Purim passed without incident in Outremont this year and no tickets were issued for the use of minibuses to ferry chassidic children around the neighbourhood, as is the custom of this community on the holiday.
However, the issue is by no means settled, as far as the Chassidim are concerned, say Mayer Feig, a spokesperson for the Jewish Orthodox Community Council, and Mindy Pollak, an Outremont borough councillor, who is chassidic.
Pollak invited the media and non-Jews in the neighbourhood who are open to rapprochement with the Chassidim to a home-style Purim celebration on March 24 in an effort to “demystify” the holiday.
Guests were welcomed at the Durocher Street home of Malkie and Joseph Farkas, where they were told the story of Purim and showered with hamantashen and other traditional treats.
While the mood was festive, Feig stressed that the community is disappointed that the borough refuses to discuss with it a permanent solution to the issue of the minibuses.
In 2014 and last year, six tickets were issued by police to the drivers of mini-buses rented by the chassidic community to transport children from home to home on Purim. The children bring gifts to members of their community and generally spread good cheer.
The tickets, which average $245 each, were contested in Montreal municipal court and, on Feb. 22, the prosecutor withdrew the charges. The judge approved that decision saying that there is insufficient signage on the streets of Outremont informing the public of the ban on this type of vehicle.
The case of two other tickets being contested is due to come before the court in April.
The defendants are being represented by lawyers associated with the Centre for Research-Action on Race Relations (CRARR), a non-profit organization that fights discrimination.
The lawyers argue that the bylaw invoked to prohibit minibuses on residential streets has a discriminatory effect on Chassidim and therefore contravenes the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, as well as Quebec’s rights charter.
Since that legal victory, CRARR executive director Fo Niemi intervened with borough officials and the Montreal police to try to ensure that Purim would proceed unobstructed this year.
Niemi received an assurance from Montreal executive committee member Lionel Perez that no tickets would be issued this Purim.
The borough did not, as it could have, make its signage more explicit, but, on the other hand, it has not acceded to demands from the Chassidim for a permanent solution. They want the bylaw amended to make clear that minibuses are not a prohibited vehicle, or have the bylaw thrown out.
Feig thanked the police for showing “sensitivity and leadership” in refraining from stopping the circulation of the mini-buses this year. He said he had been told the police conducted their own internal legal review and used their discretion in not applying the bylaw.
Bylaw 1171 was adopted by Outremont in 2003 to prevent large inter-city buses from circulating on residential streets. This was in response to complaints about the frequent buses the Chassidim run between Montreal and New York.
Feig said the community, by and large, accepted that this was a reasonable restriction.
Things were quiet until 2013 when, for the first time, tickets were issued against minibuses under that bylaw.
Feig charged that this was at the instigation of “a certain individual who found a technicality in the wording of the bylaw” that could make it applicable to minibuses even though typically, with 21 seats, they are much smaller than the New York-bound coaches.
He was referring to borough councillor Céline Forget, a longtime campaigner against what she views as violations by Chassidim of Outremont regulations.
The bylaw refers to vehicles with more than two back wheels, which could be interpreted to encompass minibuses. The borough has suggested the community use smaller minivans, but Feig said these are not as safe.
“This is all about the safety of the kids,” he said.
The issue is also larger. It’s about the Chassidim’s sense that the borough is targeting the community and trying to make it feel unwelcome, he said.
The community, made up of different sects, continues to grow and is estimated to represent at least 20 per cent of the population.
“We have reached out to the mayor [Marie Cinq-Mars] and asked her to sit down with us and work out a solution… But the mayor has refused to listen,” Feig said.
While everything went smoothly this year, Feig said the past couple of years have been “very stressful” for the community on what is supposed to be one of its most joyous holidays.
“The past two years were almost a battle of the streets, with police cars all around us… It does not make sense to harass a community,” he said. “We just want to live in peace… vivre ensemble,” he said, borrowing Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre’s slogan.
That sentiment was echoed by Malkie Farkas, who generously opened her home and made everyone at ease. “I hope that through understanding we can all live in peace.
“The message of Purim is to never give up hope. God is up there, and we know things will turn out all right if we do the right thing,” she said.
Photo: Amy Ross Flickr