MONTREAL – Christians, Muslims and Jews are praying literally under the same roof on Nuns’ Island. And they are not just neighbours – the three groups are working together on common humanitarian concerns. Their first joint project is helping Syrian refugees.
Together, the Catholic Ste. Marguerite Bourgeoys, the Al Jazira Islamic Centre and the Nuns’ Island Chabad Centre have formed Le Collectif pour l’unité de l’Île des Soeurs, which was officially launched in January.
Since Passover, when Chabad moved from director Rabbi Levi Itkin’s home, the three communities have been located in the same building, the former Elgar strip mall, in the heart of Nuns’ Island near the municipal community centre.
This harmonious coexistence, which Rabbi Itkin thinks is unparalleled in the world, started when church warden Roger Légaré last fall approached an observant Jewish real estate developer to build a bell tower.
Samuel Gewurz, a part owner of the land the ex-mall is on, had been helping with renovations on what would become Chabad’s home. The congregation, which has been on that site for about 10 years, had recently inherited four bells from a defunct church.
Gewurz, head of Proment Corporation, which has been the primary builder of residential properties on Nuns’ Island for more than 40 years, reflected, in effect: “How can a Jew construct one of the defining features of a Christian house of worship?”
But Gewurz and his family are part and parcel of the history of Nuns’ Island, an upscale waterfront area in the borough of Verdun. Nuns’ Island was bought by his father, Juda, in 1955 from the nuns of Congrégation de Notre-Dame, with partner Joe Remer. The nuns, who had owned the island since the early 18th century, mandated Proment to be their developer in perpetuity.
Gewurz told Légaré he would build the belfry on the condition that it would house “the bells of unity” and the three faiths would enter dialogue – not on theology, but on being good neighbours and exemplars of their beliefs.
Nuns’ Island councillor and Montreal executive committee member Manon Gauthier helped bring the three groups together.
Gewurz wanted more than symbolism or a one-time project. He urged ongoing concrete action expressing shared values that would serve as a model to Quebec, and maybe the world. Or, at the least, avert any tensions on Nuns’ Island, which he observed is otherwise quite secular.
As the Muslims had just begun collecting food, clothing and furniture for the Syrians, the Collectif made refugee relief their focus.
Donations were piling up in the garage of Mourad Bendjennet, lay leader of the Islamic centre, and more space was urgently needed.
That’s where Chabad stepped in in a big way. Rabbi Itkin persuaded Alex Kestenbaum of the general contractor Canvar Group to donate the use of a 3,000-square-foot warehouse on Nuns’ Island to the Collectif.
The facility is being run by volunteers, led by Bendjennet’s wife, Dora Douik. The new arrivals come to the warehouse to get what they need.
All three faiths have contributed materially and in time, and together they are sponsoring a Syrian family, whom they still await.
“I’ve been involved with different philanthropic work since 2008,” said Bendjennet, a Tunisian-born architect, “and I have never seen so much energy and efficiency… We are all working for the same goal, there are no disagreements…
“I remember my father and grandfather in Tunisia used to say how Muslims, Christians and Jews used to live together in peace. The message we want to send is that this is still possible.”
Rabbi Itkin noted that the three monotheistic religions share a notion that charity should be rooted in justice.
The Hebrew term for this, tzedakah, and Islam’s sadakah are similar, he said. The Chabad movement, in particular, believes kindness can have far-reaching effects in the world.
“The idea of helping refugees is not foreign to me. My family ran from country to country to escape Nazism and Stalinism. People helped them, now we are giving back in kind,” he said.
There are boundaries, however. Politics is avoided, Bendjennet said, and Rabbi Itkin appreciates that his partners understand that he cannot enter a church or a mosque. “We all respect each other, but we keep our individuality,” he said.
There is a single entrance to the premises they cohabit, but each community has a discrete section within an L-shaped layout. The church is in front with the mosque, which has been there for three years, and the synagogue is on either side.
Chabad’s approximately 2,000-square-foot centre will be officially inaugurated in June.
Originally from Pennsylvania, Rabbi Itkin founded the Nuns’ Island Chabad five years ago. “Many people think there are no Jews living here, but we have about 120 households on our mailing list,” as Nuns’ Island, with a population of close to 20,000, continues to grow.
Légaré invites all “islanders,” whatever their religion, if any, to get involved, too, and warmly welcome “their” refugee family. He hopes it will be possible to sponsor a second family.
Gewurz sums up what is happening on this picturesque, tranquil island this way: “In a world filled with hate and mistrust, the Collectif is attempting to demonstrate that people of different faiths can work together for the good of people in need.”
Verdun borough Mayor Jean-François Parenteau has hailed this “exceptional initiative” for raising awareness of the importance of “generosity, sharing and openness to the other and building a community based on those values.”