In the 1920s, Montreal Jews established the Vaad Ha’ir (VH) to exercise control over kashrut and subsidize Jewish educational institutions. Montreal’s Orthodox rabbinate simultaneously organized as the Vaad Harabbonim (VR). VR enabled a number of immigrant Orthodox rabbis to earn a relatively decent living supervising kashrut.
By 1935, however, the Depression was taking its toll. The previous December, VH reported a deficit of $10,000. This resulted in pressure to economize by either cutting rabbis’ salaries or the subsidies VH was paying to educational institutions whose teachers had not been paid in months. VH proposed a 15 to 20 per cent reduction in rabbinical salaries in January, 1935.
In February, all but one of the VR rabbis staged a walkout. VH tried to continue without them, claiming that it still controlled kashrut even though only one of the eight original VR rabbis was still on the job. The seven strikers – including VR’s chair and vice-chair Rabbi Hirsch Cohen and Rabbi Yudel Rosenberg – continued to regard themselves as the legitimate VR and warned that in VH slaughterhouses errors in kashrut were now very likely.
The press, using standard labour terminology, spoke of the rabbis having “downed their tools.” VH charged the rabbis with walking out for no reason and with no warning. Rabbi Cohen argued that the rabbis had walked out because VH was concerned only with issues of kashrut and not with other communal issues.
Not so, retorted the VH. They had argued for years that it wanted its rabbis to fulfill functions other than kashrut, including visiting hospitals and schools, and that it was the rabbis who had balked at the extra work. VH charged that the rabbis had walked out because VH continued to support the schools at the expense of their salaries. In response, Rabbi Cohen cited Shakespeare: “the devil can quote scripture.” He pleaded for a non-partisan committee to hear the rabbis’ complaints.
In March the dispute ratcheted up a notch. VH publicly claimed to employ 11 slaughterers, 10 supervisors and to be supervising 67 butcher shops. More significantly, it claimed that its rabbis constituted the only legitimate VR. In response, the dissident rabbis formed a new Va’ad Hakashrut (VK).
At this point one of the major fault lines in the rabbinical walkout became publicly visible. At its inception, VH had been purposefully constituted so as to be inclusive of the “radical” non-Orthodox Jewish community and to undertake to support both the religiously-oriented education of the Talmud Torah and the “radical” Folks and Peretz Shules. The fact that Rabbi Cohen wished to give VK’s support only to the Talmud Torah indicates that he wanted no part in this inclusive coalition. Rabbi Cohen and his colleagues likely saw in this crisis an opportunity to create a strictly Orthodox VK. The rabbinical strike had now become a “holy war.”
By April, both sides were looking for a way out of the impasse. VH could not indefinitely dispense with the services of the most important Orthodox rabbis of the city. The strikers, for their part, failed to get a recognized communal leader to head a VK that worked specifically for their religious interests and that doomed their effort to failure.
A break in the conflict came about a month later, when Rabbi Rosenberg and two colleagues asked to be reinstated in VH and were accepted back. Rabbi Rosenberg called for the remaining dissidents to return as well, stating that no one profited from this communal division except Satan.
Through the summer of 1935, the newly reconstituted VR functioned with five members, while four rabbis remained for the moment on the outside. But on Oct. 17, the leading holdout, Rabbi Hirsch Cohen, once again publicly took his place as chair of VR. By the annual meeting of the VH in December 1935, affairs had returned to a semblance of “normalcy”.
The Montreal rabbinical walkout of February to October 1935 highlighted the changing role of the Orthodox rabbinate. It also exposed tensions within the community between Orthodox and “radical” Jews that would ultimately result in the evolution of VH into a decidedly Orthodox institution with hardly a memory of its initial inclusive mandate.