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The endless squabbling between the Hasidic Jewish Community and the general population in Outremont/Mile End has a new chapter.

In the past, they’ve argued about the right to build succahs, to put up an eruv, and even to run a bus service to New York.

The latest issue? The right to work out:

It was an unlikely confrontation in an alley behind the Park Ave. YMCA.

On one side, Renee Lavaillante, sun-loving pilates practitioner; on the other, Abraham Perlmutter, member of the Hasidic congregation of Yetev Lev, who believes those women in tights are corrupting young boys at the synagogue across the street.

The clash between the two came to a head yesterday over the YMCA’s new frosted windows, which block out the sun – and the tights.

It’s tempting to write this off as just another example of the wider community’s intolerance towards the Hasidic population. But in this case, it’s actually backwards:

In all the above examples, the community was attempting to curtail the rights of the Hasidim. In this case, the Hasidim are attempting to curtail the rights of the community.

Part of living in a free society means that you’re entitled to your own beliefs, standards and values, but you can’t go imposing them on anyone else as long as they’re not breaking the law or hurting anyone. The Hasidic community may not like the fact that women in Montreal have the right to walk around – or work out – in tights and sleeveless tops, but the fact remains that they do. And, like it or not, the Hasidic community can’t go around throwing stones at people who walk the streets in shorts, either. This isn’t Meah Shearim, and I don’t condone it when they do it there, either.

The Hasidic community has a right to its feelings on the matter, but doesn’t have a right to impose those feelings on anyone else. We will all get along better when we recognize this.


France is maybe the most prominent example in the media these days on total idiocy about the concept of freedom of religion… but there are other, smaller-scale examples closer to home.

Today’s Gazette had two stories. One was about a zoning dispute for a mosque in DDO:

Many prayers have been said at 241 Anselme-Lavigne Blvd. in the 15 years the building has had a religious function, but for the current Muslim occupants, the D.D.O. address is proving to be more of a curse than a blessing.

The Canadian Islamic Centre Al-Jamieh bought the property in December 2001 and has been fighting the borough for the right to stay ever since.

The dispute became public in fall 2002 when the borough changed the site’s zoning from residential to institutional, with the aim of moving out the mosque and putting in a day care.

Meanwhile, a group of Orthodox Jews is battling their condo association for the right to build succahs on their balconies:

Several religious organizations will side with five families as they argue that a condo rule barring them from putting huts on their balconies for about a week each year to celebrate a fall religious festival contravenes the Charter of Rights.

The case is considered one of the most significant in the court’s winter session because the outcome could determine whether private contracts can override the charter and human-rights legislation.

These two cases are quite different, of course. The first is yet another example of cities using every iota of red tape and zoning regulation at their disposal to prevent religious centres or houses of worship. I haven’t heard too many large-scale protests against churches, but a synagogue in Outremont is in an ongoing battle to expand, and the mosque in question in DDO used to be a conservative synagogue, which also went through its share of problems with the city. It seems people can only tolerate freedom of religion as long as religions other than their own are being practiced privately in a home, not publicly.

In the second case, I suppose a condo association should be allowed to have by-laws for certain things. But personal politics and petty squabbles usually play more of a role in those condo meeting votes than common sense. On the one hand, a communal succah for the building seems reasonable. But on the other hand, I’m willing to bet that the opposition to the balcony succahs has more to do with childish power jockeying than with any real concerns. Again back to Outremont, the worst case of this that I can recollect recently was a group of citizens lobbying to prevent the large Orthodox Jewish community in the area from putting up an eruv – a small, basically invisible wire that would encircle the area, allowing the religious inside it to “carry” things like baby strollers on the Sabbath. It wouldn’t have harmed anyone. In fact, there’s an eruv in Dollard but I only know about it by having been told. Nobody would notice. And yet, petty squabbles.

The concept of freedom of religion is an interesting one. It guarantees people the right to practice their religious beliefs without harassment. And it also guarantees freedom from religion to those who don’t wish to participate. That means no school prayers in public schools, no forced public worship of any kind, and basically that the government butts out. But it also means that if people want to wear symbols of faith or observe rituals, they should be free to do so, as long as they don’t compel anyone else to. If a Jewish child wants to bring Passover lunches to school for eight days every year, nobody should force him to eat bread. If a Muslim girl wants to wear a hijab to school, nobody should force her not to… assuming that nobody forced her to wear it in the first place, of course.

But how far does the public responsibility extend to ensure that people can practice their religion? Is a city obliged to rezone land to allow houses of worship to be built? Is a condo association obliged to allow succahs? What if I claimed that my own religion required me to play loud music at 2am every night and dance around in tap shoes. Would a landlord be denied the right to evict me for disturbing the neighbours?

The tricky thing about religion is that there’s no clear-cut line between legitimate, recognized religions and fringe ones. Who’s to say that a small group with 20 followers is any less entitled to the protection of the Charter of Rights than a religion with millions of adherents? What about different ideas on how a religion ought to be observed? If a Reform rabbi testified that a succah wasn’t really needed, but an Orthodox rabbi disagreed, who does the judge have to listen to? And how far is the public required to go to be accommodating? Rezoning land to build a mosque is one thing, but is a public place required to actually build and provide the prayer facilities, as student groups in some universities are claiming?

Obviously, there are no clear answers. But in these cases, we should ask ourselves about the intent of the people seking to block something. Are they doing it out of xenophobia or out of a legitimate concern? When a Sikh boy was denied the right to bring a kirpan to school, perhaps the parents who lobbied so hard against him were denying this boy’s freedom of religion and perhaps they were overreacting, but the bottom line was that their concern stemmed from the legitimate desire to protect their children against a perceived threat of a large knife being present in a classroom in the hands of a fellow student. But I suspect that the motives of the few DDO residents complaining about the mosque are not as honest. At the end of the day, I think it’s about making an honest effort to accommodate one another, to a reasonable degree. Unfortunately, the people involved in such squabbles are rarely reasonable or accommodating… and then you end up with news items like these.


Xenophobes oppose Hasidic bus service


There’s more conflict between the Hasidic Jewish community and a group of bigoted xenophobes in Outremont. First, they opposed the Eruv on the grounds that the wire is visible and it bothers them or something similar. Then, they lobbied against a zoning change that would have allowed a synagogue to expand. Now, they’re opposing a […]

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