MONTREAL — Congregation Beth-El and the Town of Mount Royal (TMR) may disagree over the removal of the menorah outside town hall this Chanukah after many years, but that was not in evidence at a pre-holiday party at the synagogue Dec. 15.
At the congregation’s invitation, Mayor Philippe Roy and all the councilors – Minh Diem Le Thi, Joseph Daoura, Daniel Robert, Erin Kennedy, John Miller and Melpa Kamateros – attended the event.
The large electric menorah was given to Beth-El and was on display and lit in the synagogue auditorium that night.
The council unanimously decided to remove the menorah, which had been placed outside the town hall for more than 40 years, as well as a more recently added Christian nativity scene. What remains this holiday season is a Christmas tree with lights.
In an interview, Roy defended the decision, which was protested by Beth-El’s rabbi emeritus, Allan Langner, and Chabad of the Town director Rabbi Moishe Krasnanski, as well as B’nai Brith Canada.
Roy said it was incorrect that the council decided to eliminate symbols deemed religious because Muslims had objected to Islam not being represented in municipal decorations, as had been widely reported. TMR has a small Muslim community, but it did not make any request or objection concerning the holiday display, he said.
“I have been on a council for six years, and each year the same debate comes up about what we should do. This year, on the advice of the town’s lawyer, we decided to take away any religious symbols.
“In the past two years, there have been three cases before the Quebec Human Rights Commission concerning religion and municipalities, including the reciting of prayers at council meetings in Laval and Saguenay, and a third about religious symbols [the specifics of which he could not recall], and the commission has ruled in favour of their elimination in all cases.
“Our lawyer warned us we could now be sued by a citizen.”
TMR has become increasing multi-faith and multicultural, a fact reflected by the composition of the council, Roy pointed out. “The population is very diverse now, with holidays throughout the year. Where does it stop?”
As for whether the Christmas tree is a religious symbol, Roy is confident that it is accepted that the sapin de Noël is part of Quebec’s cultural heritage.
If he has any regret, it’s that the decision, which was made in early fall, was not relayed to the communities most affected with a little more sensitivity.
Roy said the TMR council also received objections, some of them angry, from Christians, especially from the sizeable Lebanese community, which suspected Muslims had complained about the nativity scene, perhaps for political reasons.
“But we received a lot of support also,” he said. “People realize it was a tough decision but the right one.”
During the Beth-El ceremony, conducted by Rabbi Langner, Roy said Chanukah commemorates the struggle for freedom and the victory of faith over despair.
Rabbi Langner still feels the lighting of the menorah at city hall was an event meaningful to Jews and non-Jews alike and regrets its demise.
The evening also celebrated what many Beth-El members regard as a modern-day miracle: the first time Rabbi Ronnie Cahana returned to the synagogue after a devastating stroke in July.
The brain stem incident left the 57-year-old in what is referred to as a locked-in state. He was fully conscious but unable to move any part of his body, except his eyelids and mouth, or to breathe.
After months at the Montreal Neurological Institute, Rabbi Cahana is now at a rehabilitation centre and making progress that has amazed his doctors.
Rabbi Cahana was beaming throughout the evening. He is now able to speak, although not always audibly, and move his head. He had words for everyone who greeted him.
His wife, Karen, said her husband felt blessed to be back at his old shul.
His congregants and the councillors gathered around him, wishing him well, touching him, kissing him, taking his photo. The children presented him with a poster they made, with their photos affixed to a menorah, and with the words “We Love You/ Kindle Our Spirit.” They asked him to hang it in his room.
Rabbi Langner, who is 90 and has been with Beth-El since 1959, led the assembled in the singing of the traditional song of welcome, Haveinu Shalom Aleichem, for his younger colleague.