In a historic moment for Montreal, a woman from the chassidic community in Outremont is running for a borough seat there in the Nov. 3 municipal election.
Mindy Pollack, who identifies with the Vizhnitz sect, announced July 2 that she is vying for a Projet Montréal council seat in Outremont borough’s Claude-Ryan district in a bid to start a “dialogue” and a process to heal longstanding frictions with non-Jews in the area.
The incumbent councillor in the district is independent Louis Moffatt.
Claude-Ryan is bounded by Hutchison Street and Van Horne, Laurier and Bloomfield avenues and has the borough’s densest proportion of Chassidim. The borough as a whole has an estimated 5,000 Chassidim out of a population of 25,000.
But victory is no sure thing. Another candidate in the same district is Pierre Lacerte, who is running as an independent and is a regular critic of Outremont Chassidim on his blog. He announced his candidacy prior to Pollack.
“The situation has to change,” Pollack told The CJN.
Instances of tension between Chassidim and non-Jews in recent years have ranged from synagogue zoning and expansion disputes to idling chassidic buses, Jewish holiday parking, the way Chassidim celebrate Purim and how Chassidim are seen as too insular.
But “both sides need to be respected and listened to,” Pollack said.
She appeared to appreciate the historic significance of a chassidic woman running for public office for the first time.
The only Orthodox Jews to have served as city councillors – all men – are Sydney Pfeifer, also in Outremont, from 1991 to 2002, Saulie Zajdel, a Lubavitcher who was a Montreal city councillor for more than 20 years, beginning in 1986, and Lionel Perez, the current mayor of the Montreal borough of Cote-de-Neiges–Nôtre-Dame-de-Grâce.
Without a doubt, door-to-door campaign will be different for Pollack.
The unmarried 24-year-old said she’ll decline to shake hands with men – including if she wins – but will explain why politely.
She said news of her candidacy within Outremont’s chassidic community has been, for the most part, positively received, despite it being an unheard of departure from traditional roles that women have in the community.
At the same time, “It’s the first time I’ve seen people [in the chassidic community] so excited about municipal politics,” she said in an interview on CBC Radio.
She had unreserved support for her candidacy from her parents and four siblings, she told The CJN, and while the chassidic community may never have had a female member enter politics before, “many have said they are happy to see me doing this,” particularly given the sense of urgency attached to improving Jewish-non-Jewish relations.
Two years ago, Pollack co-founded the Friends of Hutchison Street, a group that aims to improve relations between Chassidim and their neighbours through face-to-face encounters.
But entering politics, she said, “I think addresses the big picture more.”
Running for office was not initially Pollack’s own idea. She said Projet Montréal first approached her more than a year ago to consider being the party’s candidate in her borough district after becoming aware of her group.
“When they said that, I just laughed,” Pollack recalled.
But she came to accept the offer in light of worsening tensions that continue to risk boiling over.
Pollack was most impressed by Projet Montréal’s “openness and transparency” and determination to address issues facing all communities, she said.
“They convinced me they wanted to start a dialogue,” Pollack said.
Alex Wertzberger, a longtime chassidic community spokesperson, said Pollack’s candidacy is a “very positive thing.”
“I think it’s the right time and the right place,” he said.
Pollack is hopeful that when the votes are counted Nov. 3, the results won’t follow religious or cultural lines.
“I hope that doesn’t happen,” Pollack said. “Every day I speak to [non-Jews] in the district who totally support what I am doing.”