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Outremont borough to hold referendum on religious accommodation Sunday

Hasidic Jews walk along Bernard Street in Outremont Wednesday, November 16, 2016 in Montreal. Citizens will vote in a referendum on whether to overturn a bylaw banning places of worship on Bernard Avenue, a busy and colourful street in the borough of Outremont. Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

The latest flashpoint in Quebec’s ongoing debate on accommodating religious minorities will play out on Sunday in a wealthy enclave on the eastern slope of Montreal’s Mount Royal.

Citizens will vote in a referendum on whether to overturn a bylaw banning places of worship on Bernard Avenue, a busy and colourful street in the borough of Outremont.

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The law forbids all new temples – of any denomination – from opening on the mixed commercial and residential strip but no one in the area has any illusions that the main group targeted is the borough’s growing Hasidic Jewish community.

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“If it walks like a duck and talks like a duck it’s a duck,” said Alex Werzberger, a spokesman for Outremont’s Hasidic Jews.

Outremont councillor Celine Forget, who is spearheading the campaign to ban new temples on the avenue, said in an email that Werzberger’s comments are part of the “Jewish lobby trying to attract the attention of journalists.”

Every few years tensions flare-up in the neighbourhood between Hasidic leaders and a pocket of citizens who claim observant Jews in the borough are trying to exert their influence too strongly.

Despite the fact the disputes are local, they often reverberate around the province.

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Ten years ago the Hasidic community paid to frost the windows of the local YMCA to prevent boys at a Jewish school nearby from having wandering eyes. The episode helped spark an ongoing province-wide debate on religious accommodation.

There have been several other flare-ups since the 1980s, often ending up before the courts.

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The latest tensions started after the borough approved a permit for a synagogue on Bernard – the fifth Jewish temple in a neighbourhood that is home to some of the richest and most-prominent francophone Montrealers.

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In response, the borough decided to pass a law banning all new religious temples on the main arteries of the borough, Bernard Avenue and Laurier Avenue.

The Laurier ban wasn’t contested and the other major street, Van Horne Avenue, has had a similar ban since the late 1990s.

Forget says the bylaw was adopted in order to support the economic development of the street.

“There are other areas in the district that allow places of worship,” she said. “Moreover, the borough plans on opening a new zone for this kind of use – for Jews and everyone else.”

The Hasidic community, which represents roughly a quarter of Outremont’s population, says its members should have the right to have their services within walking distance of where they live.

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Hasidic men pray in the synagogue twice a day, and can’t use cars during the holidays.

“It’s a turf war,” Werzberger said. “They feel to a certain degree we have taken over.”

The Hasidic community’s growing birth rates are putting pressure on the area’s services, said Mindy Pollak, the first and only Hasidic Jew elected to council.

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“I think the economic problems of some businesses are being blamed on the fact a permit was given for a synagogue,” she said. “We are a growing community and the stats show that.”

Werzberger alone has 10 children and over 50 grandchildren – “enough to fill a bus,” he said.

He said he’s hopeful about Sunday’s result. “I don’t think they are as motivated as us.”

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