In a 2016 article in the Walrus, columnist Jonathan Kay reflected on his summers spent in the Laurentians in the 1970s, where one could water ski across the lake and “be hard pressed to find a single gentile, let alone a francophone.” Montreal anglophones, including Jews, have been vacationing in that region, just a short distance north of the city, since the early 20th century, and still do. The Laurentians are to Montreal Jews as the Catskills were to New York Jews.
I observed different generations of Jewish communities while on a family vacation to the Laurentians in July. While wandering around the town of Val-Morin, Que., I came across an abandoned shul that was left in complete disrepair. It reminded me of the abandoned synagogue my father and I encountered several years ago in Budaniv, Ukraine, the shtetl where my grandfather grew up.
The Val-Morin shul, which was called Ohel Moshe Synagogue (Tent of Moses), had been built in 1936. In 1942, in the middle of the Second World War, it burned down. Rumour has it that swastikas had been seen of the walls of the destroyed building. In 1944, congregation members and owners of the local Laurentian Chateau Hotel, Boris and Adele Witkov, donated land and money for the shul to be rebuilt.
The congregation flourished in the 1950s, as it became popular among Jews who were vacationing from Montreal. But its membership dwindled over time. In the early 1990s, Chabad took it over. But by the turn of the century, Chabad abandoned it, as it opened a larger shul in nearby Ste-Agathe, which is a relative metropolis compared to Val-Morin.
The synagogue has remained ever since, wallowing in disrepair. Eventually, the town repossessed the property and after plans to convert the building into a theatre fell through, sold it. The new owners plan on turning it into a brasserie, but there’s no word as to whether they will retain the very large Star of David on the front of the structure.
Most of the Jews who vacation in Val-Morin are secular, or belong to non-Orthodox denominations.
A few decades ago, however, members of Montreal’s Belzer Hasidic community started spending summers in Val-Morin, even opening a camp there. Hasidic children on bicycles, with sporting equipment or in horse-drawn carts are not uncommon sights.
It’s as if the Jewish community of 19th century Budaniv had been updated for modern times.
But all is not well in this modern shtetl. The Belzers have run into trouble with the town administrators. In 2009, Val-Morin seized the Belzers’ 250,000-square-foot property. As The CJN reported at the time, “The Belz community and Val-Morin have been at loggerheads for some 25 years over the legality of its synagogue and school, which are in houses, as well as over complaints from residents about noise and other disturbances. Last year, the Quebec Court of Appeal ruled the community was violating municipal bylaws by operating these institutions in a residential zone.”
Three years later, some Val-Morin locals broke into 15 Hasidic homes, which they ransacked and vandalized with swastikas and other anti-Semitic graffiti, and in one case “defecated on the floor.” And this was not the first anti-Semitic incident the community has faced: in 2005, their house of worship was looted and sacred books were scattered.
So many Jewish stories emerge from Val-Morin – about assimilation, about the anglophone exodus from Quebec, about the revival of Hasidism through Chabad and about anti-Semitism. The history of the Ohel Moshe Synagogue, and the struggles of the Belz community in the Laurentians, resonate even more today, in an era when white supremacist terrorists shoot up shuls, haredim face violent assaults in Brooklyn, non-Orthodox synagogues struggle to retain and increase membership, and urban Jews seek respite from the cities in the summertime. Plus ca change …