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Tiny Montreal South Shore community reaches out to other faiths

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People dance the hora at the South Shore Jewish Community gala in Candiac, Que. HARRY BOLNER PHOTO

Its mailing list includes only about 60 households, but the South Shore Jewish Community (SSJC) is wielding an outsized influence on interfaith and intercultural relations in the Montreal area.

That was evident at its recent annual gala, which attracted more than 120 people, the largest in its history, including representatives of the Christian and Muslim communities, as well as diverse ethnic groups.

Since becoming president of the SSJC in 2014, Jacques Saada has made it a priority to forge ties between the small Jewish community and its neighbours.

The SSJC was founded 23 years ago by a handful of residents, from a variety of backgrounds, most of whom were unaware that there were any other Jews living in the area.

Saada believes the positive relationships the SSJC has built is an example to the rest of Quebec, and even the world. The SSJC is entirely volunteer-run.

“Tonight, here on the South Shore of Montreal, Jews and Muslims and Christians and Buddhists and so many others are united to say to the rest of the world that together we reject anti-Semitism and racism,” he told the crowd at the Complexe Roméo Patenaude in Candiac, Que. “Tonight, when acts of anti-Semitism are on the rise, you, my friends, are speaking out by your presence.”

READ: SOUTH SHORE JEWISH COMMUNITY MARKS 15TH ANNIVERSARY

Saada, who was born in Tunisia, was a Liberal MP from 1997 to 2006 and served as a cabinet minister in Prime Minister Paul Martin’s governemnt.

“One day, we will have to understand that anti-Semitism is the gateway to all racism, to all exclusion,” he said. “Anti-Semitism is not only the affair of Jews, it’s the affair of everyone. That’s why we are so touched by your presence here tonight.”

The co-presidents of the Centre communautaire musulman de Brossard, Usman Shaikh and Mohamed Yacoub, were prominent guests, as was Abbé Rémi Bourdon of the Roman Catholic St-Jean-Longueuil Diocese. They have been partners with the SSJC in interfaith activities.

Among other guests present were Quebec Health Minister Gaétan Barrette, MNA for the South Shore riding of La Pinière, and MP Alexandra Mendes, who represents the riding of Brossard-St-Lambert, as well as other provincial and federal politicians.

Mendes brought Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s message that, “Your effort to share the richness and vitality of your heritage with your fellow Canadians is admirable and helps to promote the diversity that is our strength.”

As has become the custom at this annual festive dinner, Israeli Consul General Ziv Nevo Kulman was the honorary president of the event (which is not a fundraiser), performing one of his last functions before leaving his post on Nov. 30, to return to the foreign ministry in Jerusalem.

Kulman joked that “this is the only Jewish gala I’ve been to where the Jews are the minority.”

Saada reiterated that the community “loves Israel unconditionally, far beyond political decisions, to which we can or cannot subscribe.”

He asked Kulman to bring back the message that this small community still believes, “against all odds,” that peace is possible between Israel and its neighbours.

Saada hopes that their example of living in harmony on the South Shore can be transported to the Middle East.

That spirit of fraternity was echoed by Shaikh, who said that he worked for Jewish employers for 35 years and that it was “the greatest experience one can have.”

“I was the first Muslim partner in a Jewish firm, Schwartz Levitsky Feldaman. They were my mentors and gave me everything I have today. I thank the Jewish community for being so open and generous with other people,” said Shaikh.

Bourdon said he also appreciates the Jewish People’s rapprochement efforts, especially in light of the Catholic Church’s long history of opposition to Judaism.

Also attending were Patrick Benaroche, Quebec co-chair of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, and Daniel Amar, executive director of the Commuauté Sépharade unifiée du Québec, with which the SSJC is affiliated.