Catastrophe Averted as Montreal Shul Finishes Oil Cleanup


stiefel-montrealThe cleanup of soil contaminated by heating oil around the vandalized Young Israel of Chomedey Synagogue in Montreal was completed last week, after six weeks of excavation, and the beleaguered congregation is now awaiting the final bill.

Although total costs are expected to be at least $150,000, president Frank Cwilich said the shul is now more optimistic about its future. The worst-case scenario – seepage of oil under the foundation – did not occur. That would have been “catastrophic” for the congregation of about 150 families, he said.

Cwilich is bracing for the final bill this week from the companies that did the digging and soil testing. The first half of that work rang in at about $65,000, so he’s expecting at least a similar sum for the rest. In the latter half of the work, the removal of soil from under a building used for storage required a more complex procedure.

Tests indicate that the remaining soil meets the standards set by the Quebec Environmental Agency.

The congregation’s insurers will pay a maximum of approximately $25,000. The congregation is heartened by the generosity and moral support of so many people, even from strangers and other unexpected sources. Last week, donations totalled more than $30,000, and a significant part of that amount has come from non-Jews or those outside the Montreal area.

In addition, there are thousands of dollars in related costs, including the cleanup of the flooded basement; the replacement of the 2,300 litres of oil that were spilled; enhanced security measures, including more surveillance cameras, and landscaping.

On the night of Oct. 6, someone opened the synagogue’s exterior oil pipe, put the nearby garden hose down the pipe and turned on the water. The water ran all night and by morning, all of the fuel in the four oil tanks had been forced out onto the back of the property and 3,200 litres of water inundated the basement and grounds.

The synagogue had surveillance cameras at the front and sides of the building, but none in the back.

Police have not given the congregation any news on their investigation. Cwilich suspects the culprit or culprits may be among the youths that hang out at all hours at a nearby shopping mall. There is no evidence the motivation was antisemitism.

Last week, representatives of a local Catholic church in Chomedey, led by Father Peter Sabbath, came to the Young Israel to present a $1,000 cheque on behalf of the church. Individual parishioners either contributed or collected another $1,000, and the church is continuing to try to raise money.

Cwilich said the synagogue and church, although in the same district for many decades - 51 years in the case of the Young Israel, 45 for Holy Name – previously had no contact with one another, so the neighbourly gesture was all the more surprising.

“We are honoured and touched by this generosity and were pleased to have a special evening [at the synagogue] where we could express our most sincere gratitude to members of Father Sabbath’s parish for helping us cope with our huge financial burden,” Cwilich said. “This act of common decency fortifies our resolve to bring our synagogue back to its healthy state.”

The Young Israel’s Rabbi Zalmen Stiefel has invited the priest to join him at his family’s Shabbat dinner. Father Sabbath was actually born Jewish.

The Young Israel has been struggling for years to survive, due to a steep decline in membership from a peak of nearly 900 members in the early 1970s. It has no endowments or wealthy benefactors of its own to fall back on.

There have been other heart-warming incidents. A couple visiting from Calgary, not Jewish, read about the Young Israel’s plight and wrote a $1,000 cheque. Employees of a nearby TD Bank branch chipped in $750.

Many donations are small. Only the day before, Cwilich said, an unknown woman came to the synagogue office and handed over a bag of coins, apparently her meagre savings.

The North American network of Young Israel, headquartered in New York, is appealing to its member congregations. Former Young Israel of Chomedey members or area residents have also contributed.

The Young Israel continues to contact philanthropic members of the Montreal Jewish community for donations, and is having encouraging results, Cwilich said.

No donation has been received from Federation CJA, but he is still hopeful of having a meeting with one of its leaders.

“It’s ironic that this is Chanukah, which is the story of miraculous oil, while oil has been the source of our tragedy. But people’s kindness and warmth has let us believe that some good can come out of all this.”

{CJ News/}