After a period of relative peace between the Hasidic and non-Hasidic residents of Outremont, Que., the borough council’s decision to allow a new synagogue on Bernard Avenue has rekindled tensions.
A November 2016 referendum upheld the previous borough council’s bylaw banning any new places of worship on Bernard, a major commercial artery.
Mayor Philippe Tomlinson said lawyers advised the council that it cannot stop the Hasidic synagogue from going ahead, because plans for it had been submitted and approved by council before the referendum was called.
If it had tried to block the project, the borough could have been embroiled in a costly legal battle, he said.
Instead, an out-of-court settlement was reached with the synagogue’s promoters that limits its size and prominence.
The synagogue is to be located in a commercial building at 1260 Bernard Ave., which is owned by Michael Rosenberg, a prominent Hasidic community member.
He initiated legal action to enlarge the plans for the synagogue, which the borough opposed. The case was scheduled to be heard on Feb. 19, before the council decided to reach a settlement.
The controversial bylaw passed by the former council was approved by a 1,561-1,202 vote in a November 2016 referendum that was open to residents of the area.
The Hasidic community mobilized to try to defeat the bylaw, which they say is discriminatory and effectively prevents it from creating much-needed additional synagogues in Outremont.
The number of Hasidim, belonging to several sects, continues to grow. They are believed to represent close to 25 per cent of the population of about 25,000.
In the November 2017 Montreal election, the composition of the Outremont borough council changed completely, except for the re-election of Mindy Pollak, a Hasidic community member and the sole opponent of the bylaw at the time. Her party, Projet Montréal, holds four of the five seats on the council.
The single opposition councillor, Jean-Marc Corbeil, spoke out against the decision to let the new shul open on Bernard at the Feb. 4 council meeting.
The overflow meeting was raucous, with several people in the audience castigating Tomlinson for not respecting the referendum result and being undemocratic.
The plans for the new synagogue were approved by the former council in the summer of 2015. That move was met with stiff opposition from some residents, who said they wanted to preserve Bernard’s ambience and commercial vitality.
There is currently one Hasidic synagogue on Bernard.
Following the outcry, the council proposed a bylaw placing a moratorium on new places of worship on Bernard and Laurier avenues, citing the need to revitalize business activity on them.
Unlike Bernard, Laurier does not pass through the heart of the Hasidic neighbourhood.
Part of the compromise reached between the borough and the new shul’s promoters is that it will be 7,000 sq ft, rather than the 10,000 that Rosenberg wanted, and will be limited to the second floor and the back of the building, where the entrance will be.
Three street-level commercial spaces, which have been vacant for years, will be offered for retail tenants again. The synagogue is expected to be completed within a year.
Opponents say they are considering mounting a legal challenge to the deal.