Montreal: Munkatcher Shul Gets to Stay


alex-werzbergerMontreal – National Post reports: 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.

Read more at National Post.

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