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Wednesday, October 1, 2014

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Chassidic councillor seeks to heal divisions in Outremont

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Outremont borough councillor Mindy Pollak wants to change misconceptions about Chassidim. [Janice Arnold photo]

MONTREAL — Renegade or a canny handpick?

Mindy Pollak, who made history in November when she became the first chassidic woman elected to public office in Quebec – just as the values charter debate was red-hot – wants it known that she is emphatically neither.

Pollak, 25, has not deviated from the strict observance in which she was brought up and is adamant that the chassidic leadership did not choose her, behind the scenes, to represent them on the Outremont borough council because she projects a very different image of their community.

But she does wholly embrace the role of stereotype debunker without compromising her religious beliefs and way of life.

Pollak won the Claude Ryan district in the Nov. 3 Montreal election, the area with the borough’s greatest concentration of Chassidim. She received a decisive 35 per cent of the vote, besting four other candidates including the Orthodox Sheldon Goldberg, who ran with successful mayoral candidate Denis Coderre, and independent Pierre Lacerte, who has been feuding with some Chassidim for a decade over alleged flouting of municipal regulations.

The turnout was 61 per cent, one of the highest in the entire city.

Pollak, interviewed in her tiny office at the borough hall, is apologetic for the clutter and the size – she’ll be moving into larger space when renovations are completed.

Modestly dressed and wearing a sheitel, she is poised, warm and open to any questions.

The curiosity, even scrutiny, she aroused from the time she announced her candidacy in July was “what I expected. I was kind of hoping for it,” she said. “I really wanted to portray the community in a different light.”

Far from being the community’s official choice, Pollak faced outright hostility from some Chassidim, who feel that a woman should not be in politics. The very sight of posters with her photo was heresy to some.

This was also not unexpected, she said.

Pollak never dreamed of entering politics, she said, until she was approached by Projet Montréal, then the second opposition party. It was impressed with her groundbreaking work as co-founder of the Friends of Hutchison Street, which promotes harmonious relations between Chassidim and other residents.

A young chassidic woman teaming up with a woman twice her age and of Palestinian descent, Leila Marshy, going door to door trying to combat suspicion and misunderstanding on both sides of the cultural divide had caught the party’s attention.

“At first I laughed [at the idea of running], but the more I thought about it, the more I thought I could make a difference,” she said. “It was totally my decision.”

Many Chassidim, a growing segment of the population, felt they needed a voice on council.

Up to election day, the community, made up of followers of various rabbinic dynasties, seemed divided, the majority appearing to favour Coderre, at least for city mayor.

Pollak did receive good wishes from the Vizhnitzer rebbe in Israel, but says that should not be interpreted as some kind of seal of approval.

While there may be matters she will consult rabbis on, Pollak is firm she is not being guided by them.

More important to her was the go-ahead from her parents, with whom the unmarried Pollak lives.

Pollak is the only Projet Montréal (now the official opposition) member on the five-woman borough council. The others belong to a local slate formed to keep Outremont a separate borough, except for independent Céline Forget, who was re-elected by just 11 votes.

“No comment,” Pollak responded quickly when asked about the prospect of sitting across the table from Forget, who has a long history of clashes with the chassidic community.

Pollak credits her British-born mother, Elka, with instilling in her an openness to other people.

“My mother is one of the friendliest people you’ll meet. Spend a half-hour with her and she will know your life story… She talks with everyone, all our neighbours, Jewish or non-Jewish. A Reform rabbi moved in recently near us that she is friends with.”

Pollak’s father is “Québécois,” born here of Romanian parents.

All four of her grandparents were Holocaust survivors who were in the camps, she said.

A graduate of the Belz Community School, Pollak is equally articulate in English and French. She perfected her French while working as an esthetician in a spa within walking distance of her home. Most of her clients were francophones.

“I loved that job, connecting with people, helping them feel good about themselves,” she said.

Pollak has reluctantly given that up for now to devote herself to being a councillor. It’s work that she says “occupies my brain every minute of every single day.” It’s been a learning curve, and preparing the borough budget has been particularly daunting.

“People would say to me, ‘You work? Really, you do that?’ They’re like, ‘Wow’…

“We [Chassidim] need to get out of our little box to clear up the everyday misconceptions and prejudices people have.”

Pollak stressed that day-to-day relations between Chassidim and non-Chassidim are good and that instances of tension that get reported distort reality. “It’s a minority who make a lot of noise, and they are the ones we hear,” she observed.

Pollak is a firm believer in communication and the value of people talking directly to one another to fix what’s wrong. That’s the guiding philosophy of Friends of Hutchison, which holds open meetings most months, usually on Sunday at the Mile End Library, where anyone can air grievances or just get to know their neighbours better.

The exchange continues on its Facebook page.

A recurring gripe has been that the Chassidim don’t take care of their property, she said. In the spring, the Friends plan to launch a project whereby volunteers will weed, plant low-maintenance plants and otherwise get unkempt yards into order.

“Gardening is just not a priority for large families who rent,” she said.

In her short time on council, Pollak has needed her diplomatic skills. One man complained at a council meeting about his chassidic neighbour leaving the planks of his dismantled sukkah on his balcony after the holiday.

Pollak offered to go with the man to speak with the neighbour. He refused, which bewilders Pollak.

She did sort out an issue over a bus that picks up a handicapped boy each day at his home, a vehicle whose presence a neighbour objected to because it blocks traffic.

Pollak is hoping to avert the confrontations that have marred the Chassidim’s celebration of Purim in recent years. Boys customarily travel in buses from house to house bearing treats for the holiday.

Some neighbours don’t like it, and the bylaws do set limits on such vehicles circulating in residential areas. Pollak is trying to find a compromise before this Purim on March 16.

“I love talking to people, hearing their concerns, helping them solve things,” said Pollak, who should be busy over the next four years.

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