Court rules ‘illegal’ Montreal Hasidic synagogue can stay despite campaign to shut it down

synagogueMONTREAL — News reports have branded it an “illegal synagogue,” and local activists at odds with the neighbourhood’s growing Hasidic population have campaigned to have it shut down, but a court has ruled that prayers can continue within Congregation Munchas Elozer Munkas.

Nobody disputes that the 35-year-old synagogue located inside a converted duplex violates the municipal zoning bylaw. But in an April 18 ruling, Quebec Superior Court Justice André Prévost rejected the city’s attempt to end “activities of worship and religion” in the building.

Judge Prévost found that there were “exceptional circumstances” in the synagogue’s case, and that a “strict, rigorous and blind application of the bylaw” would create an injustice.

It is the latest flashpoint in the long-running tensions between the Hasidim and their Outremont neighbours, and one community leader called the ruling an important victory for the roughly 35-family congregation.

“It means the individual victory for this particular synagogue, which has been harassed — and that’s the only word I can use — for close to 35 years,” said Alex Werzberger, head of the Coalition of Outremont Hasidic Organizations, which supported the synagogue’s legal defence. “And it gives the community sort of a lift, because maybe the pendulum is starting to swing a little bit upwards.”

The synagogue’s problem is that, although there is a corner store across the alley from it and a church across the street, it is on a half-block of St-Viateur Avenue in the borough of Outremont zoned exclusively for residential use.

The congregation first began renting the two-storey brick building in 1976, using it as a “house of study and prayer.” It bought the building in 1980 and began a series of renovations to convert it into a synagogue. Over a period of six years, a dividing wall was removed, the basement was dug out to install a mikvah, or ritual bath, the roof was modified to allow for celebration of the Jewish holiday of Sukkot and a urinal was installed.

In all cases, the congregation was granted municipal permits for the work, although in at least one case an inspector said the work was done prior to a permit being issued.

In 1982, Outremont took the congregation to municipal court for a zoning violation, but after winning the case and seeing the synagogue fined $50, the city never contested the synagogue’s appeal and the conviction was overturned.

More recently, the synagogue has become embroiled in Quebec’s simmering debate over the reasonable accommodation of religious minorities. It sits less than two blocks from Montreal’s Park Avenue YMCA, which became ground zero for the reasonable accommodation controversy when it agreed to frost windows so boys at a neighbouring Hasidic school would not be distracted by women exercising in spandex.

Congregation Munchas Elozer Munkas caught the attention of a vocal group of self-described secularists who have appointed themselves watchdogs of Montreal Hasidim. Mr. Werzberger called the scrutiny of his community “anti-Semitism, pure and naked.”

But it appeared to play a role in Outremont reviving the zoning complaint against the synagogue. The city argued that the synagogue was a nuisance for neighbours and filed “a bundle of complaints” it had received dating back to 2002.

But upon examination of the complaints, the court found the people complaining had either come to terms with the synagogue or did not live near it. None of the signatories to a 200-name petition entered as evidence lived on St-Viateur, and some did not even live in Outremont.

Judge Prévost concluded the city had been aware of the synagogue’s presence since at least 1980 and had “accommodated” its activities, despite what its zoning dictated. The judge was also persuaded the congregation genuinely tried to find another building zoned for religious use, but it could not look too far afield because its members do not drive on the sabbath or on religious holidays.

A spokesman for Outremont said the decision is being studied to see if there are grounds for an appeal.

Mr. Werzberger said the ruling saves one of the oldest Hasidic congregations in Outremont. “They should have been left alone a long time ago,” he said.

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