Features | The secularist and the synagogue

On June 19, 2011, temperatures in Montreal reached the mid-20s. The children of Outremont were busy, as they always are in summer, scootering down the neighbourhood’s tree-lined streets, or sliding down its wrought-iron banisters. But at the Mile End Library, the residents of the Plateau Mont-Royal borough were ignoring the perfect summer day. They were voting on a referendum about a proposed 400-square-foot expansion of the Congregation Gate David of Bobov, a Hasidic synagogue on Hutchinson. (The west side of Hutchinson had been rezoned so its residents could vote in the referendum). The debate over Gate David’s expansion had been bitter, fuelled by flyer campaigns on both sides. After a day of balloting, the synagogue expansion was voted down. It was a close race: just 53.4 per cent voted ‘No.’ So, why the acrimony? Why the close vote?

The story begins years earlier, with former journalist Pierre Lacerte, and his camera. Lacerte began in journalism writing articles about his world travels for the Montreal daily Le Devoir. He wrote for the other francophone dailies – La Presse and Le Journal de Montréal – and several magazines before retiring. In 2010, he was regarded highly enough to be named a judge for Canada’s National Magazine Awards.

When I sat down with Lacerte recently, he described to me the beginnings of another career. A resident of Hutchinson for 26 years, he has spent the last ten years or so attempting to right the wrongs he perceives in Outremont’s tightly knit Hasidic community. “Over the years I saw an increasing number of these people, and, from 2003, I realized there was something going on that was not appropriate,” Lacerte explained. “I saw that they were doing renovations on weekends, and at night. So I thought, ‘that’s strange,’ and I started taking pictures.”

Lacerte channeled his anger at the Hasidim into a blog (http://accommodementsoutremont.blogspot.com), painstakingly documenting all the “illegal” things his Hasidim neighbours do, photographing people, double-parked cars, and through the windows of synagogues. The writing on his blog is red hot with secularist fervor. “For more than half a century,” reads one post, written in French like the rest of the blog, “the Satmar sect has sacrificed thousands of children on the altar of religious ultraorthodoxy in Quebec.”

In 2007, Lacerte brought prominent Hasidic businessman Michael Rosenberg to the Outremont Council, asking that Rosenberg be kept off a local interfaith committee. Lacerte compiled a “dossier” of photos and documents purporting to show that Rosenberg had been making illegal renovations on a synagogue across the street from Lacerte’s house.

Rosenberg dismisses the charges to this day. They were “some stupid accusations,” he said over the phone. “I didn’t look into it deeply.”

As many in the area know, Rosenberg is a big deal amongst the local Hasidism. He is president of the enormous Rosedev real estate company. You do not mess with him. Lacerte found that out the hard way. Rosenberg sued him for defamation, demanding $375,000, and asked for a restraining order against Lacerte. (The restraining order was denied by a Quebec court in March, while the defamation suit is still pending.)

Soon, Lacerte became a known character around the neighborhood. When the Plateau-Mont-Royal council gave the go-ahead for the Gate David’s expansion in January, it came as no surprise that Lacerte led the charge to gather the signatures needed to spark a referendum.

“I think it’s purely anti-Semitic,” Rosenberg said by phone. “If you look at what Gate David wanted to do, it was not to increase its membership…but just to add some comforts, to modernize it, put some bathrooms on the ground floor for elderly people.”

“He’s just against every synagogue that exists in his neighbrouhood,” Rosenberg added.

Since the referendum period began, Lacerte has been written about in the mainstream Canadian press. Some of the accounts have portrayed him as an anti-Jewish crusader.

In one recent article, the National Post interviewed a local Hasidic woman who survived the Holocaust. She said Lacerte’s campaign against the synagogue felt “like sixty years ago,” and rolled up her sleeve to show the concentration camp number tattooed on her forearm.

However, the fanatical Pierre Lacerte depicted by the National Post – and by himself, on his blog – is nowhere to be found when I meet him at Le Figaro cafe on Hutchinson and Fairmont. He is well-spoken, calm, and has faultlessly good manners. He even smelled nice, like French cologne. When my tape recorder ran out of batteries, he pointed me to the nearest depanneur, and reassured me that he was in no rush, and would wait until I got back.

Lacerte insists that he is “not an anti-Semite.” He goes out of his way to emphasize this fact. He runs through the bullet points of his life and career: he speaks six languages and claims to have visited over 100 countries. He says that cultural difference has always interested him as a journalist. And he likes to emphasize that he has Jewish friends. In September, he wrote an article in Le Devoir about the Jewish Montreal painter Louis Muhlstock, a friend, who died ten years ago. He even “used to date an Israeli girl!” he says from across the table at Le Figaro, smiling.

His secularist ire isn’t targeted exclusively at Hasidism, either – Lacerte also harshly criticizes the “extremist Catholicist” brainwashing of his grandparents’ generation. “With the Revolution Tranquille”– or the Quiet Revolution, a period of intense secularization in Quebec during the 1960s – “we were able to get rid of that, and we certainly don’t want fundamentalism of any religion to rule the secular life – the life of the suburb, the life of the city, the life of the country.”

The reason he keeps up his fight against the Hasidim is “not because they are always coming in and out of the synagogue to pray, but that they do illegal things,” he says.

Indeed, when he’s not declaiming about altars and ultraorthodoxy, Lacerte speaks in the staid, grey language of municipal bylaws and zoning requirements. For him, Hutchinson is residential, and shouldn’t be bombarded with double-parked cars, or Hasidism loading onto loud Greyhound-sized buses headed for weekends in Brooklyn.

But if we are to accept Lacerte’s allegedly legalistic focus, the question remains as to why he has targeted the Hasidism with such vitriol. Many McGill students can attest to the illegally run loft parties in Mile End. Shady poker games are certainly held in bars and cafes behind closed doors. The construction currently lacerating Parc is easily more disruptive than Hasidic school buses. And, either way, aren’t these quaint illegalities and minor disturbances what make Mile End Mile End?

“The best solution is for him to move out,” says Tom Costaris*, who works in a store on Parc, and is married to my cousin. “It’s easier for one person to move than for 20,000 people to move.”

Costaris says the neighbourhood’s demographics settle the dispute in the Hasdim’s favour: “I don’t blame Lacerte. This guy is not anti-Semitic; that word is thrown around way too easily. He just feels they get away with everything without going through the proper channels, which they do. But I’m with the Hasidism, it’s their turf.”

A former resident of Parc-Extension, he concluded, “If you live in a Greek neighborhood and everyone is roasting their lambs in the backyard, you really can’t do much about it, either.”

Roasted lambs and illegal synagogue construction aside, Lacerte’s anti-expansion campaign was due in part to his belief that Outremont and Plateau Mont-Royal officials are corrupt, and work at the beck and call of Hasidic leaders. His blog, which often has a conspiratorial tone, offers detailed “proof” that Hasidic leaders (such as Rosenberg) are in cahoots with Outremont officials past and present. In one instance of Lacerte’s wit, Liberal politician Martin Cauchon became “Martin Kosher.”

“The Outremont government, the Plateau-Mont-Royal, the City of Montreal – all elected people are shutting their mouth, because if you touch these people, you’re considered anti-semitic,” Lacerte tells me.

He describes the Hasidim of Outremont as a flock of misled sheep, who don’t think, and barely vote, for themselves: “They are totally subjected to the leaders of their group. They don’t have the right to read newspapers except for their own, they’re not allowed to watch television. Their only source of information is from their leaders…They’re brainwashed. Poor people.”

In Lacerte’s telling, the memory of the Holocaust is used as a cudgel by Jewish leaders to keep the Hasidic community in constant trepidation. “It’s trauma. But, at the same time, how can you always live only with that and not try and break the cycle?” he said. “The leaders maintain their people with this Holocaust thing, and that everyone in the world always hated Jews since the Egyptians 2,000 years ago. Is that a way to live a life? It’s a good way to be afraid of everybody else, and to make sure that your people will stay inside the room and not get out.”

The notion that Hasidism lead trapped lives is something many Mile End-ers grapple with daily. My mother grew up around Jeanne Mance and Bernard, in a churchgoing Irish family. Her best friend was a Hasidic girl named Rebecca*, whose house my mother had to visit if she wanted to see her, as Rebecca was rarely allowed out of the house. By their early teens, they began to drift apart: my mother continued to do things associated with teenaged years, while Rebecca’s parents looked for potential husbands.

Just walking down the street, you see ample evidence of the cloistered Hasidic lifestyle. The long skirts and stockings that Hasidic women wear seem ludicrously unpractical, not to mention oppressive, on hot summer days. And the clusters in which Hasidim walk to synagogue, heads down, talking to no one else, reinforce the barriers between them and their non-Hasidic neighbours.

Still, as Plateau-Mont Royal residents mulled over the Gate David’s proposed expansion, many in the community rallied around the Hasidim. In a joint attempt to demystify the Hasidic lifestyle and gain local support for the proposed expansion, 37 year-old Mayer Feig opened Gate David to the public two weeks before the June 19 referendum. Despite pamphleting by Lacerte and others, nearly 200 neighbors attended the open house.

One of these neighbours, surprisingly, was another journalist with her own two cents to share. A feminist freelancer of Palestinian descent, Leila Marshy showed up to the open house and, along with her partner Kathryn Harvey and a small group of Hutchinson neighbors, decided to create a group that would soon be named the “Friends of Hutchinson Street.”

I got in touch with Marshy by email. She wrote that she entered the fray because “Pierre Lacerte and his gang were going door to door with their flyers or petitions. Not only did I not understand what the problem was, I just didn’t get involved. I ignored it completely – they just seemed like cranky fanatics. But a week and a half before the June 19 referendum I finally clued in to what was going on, and I just go so offended. I thought somebody has to stand up and it might as well be me.”

In response, Marshy handed out pro-expansion pamphlets. “The referendum was nothing less than a vindictive collective punishment,” she says. Marshy’s efforts did not come without a cost. After the referendum, she felt ostracized by the community, as a couple of her anti-expansion neighbors refused to speak with her and accused her of fomenting conflict and spreading lies.

Not surprisingly, Pierre Lacerte held similar grievances with Marshy. “She and Mayer Feig played on that [their Palestinian-Hasidic friendship] a lot. It’s a strong image,” he said, rolling his eyes.

Feeling like Marshy came out of the blue, Lacerte could not understand why “all of a sudden she decided to fight for them. It’s strange…it’s just strange.” In Lacerte’s mind, conspiracy shrouds Marshy and Feig’s relationship. Marshy explained that Lacerte accused her of being on Feig’s payroll. And the accusations only got weirder after that: “Then he was ‘accusing’ me of caring only because I was Jewish,” she wrote in her email to me, adding, “The very idea of being ‘accused’ of being Jewish is so offensive, as if being Jewish is such a bad thing.” Mayer Feig refused to comment, wanting nothing more to do with the “ill-intentioned” Pierre Lacerte.

With only a Facebook page and two organized activities to date, “Friends of Hutchison Street” has faltered since the referendum. But the acrimony of the referendum period has been given a second life online by the group’s Facebook page. The page, which briefly documents the events leading up the referendum and the need for “friendship and compassion,” has become a shooting gallery of snide remarks and long-winded postings. Lacerte himself posts frequently.

Although Marshy believes the page “is not a space for fighting or petty insults,” she has not been totally immune from the temptations of biting online commentary. In one post, she commented that a photo of Lacerte “captures his smugness perfectly.” Marshy also uploaded a photo of a Hasidic man holding a Quebec flag upside down, saying Lacerte had photoshopped the image to make the man look anti-Quebec. Lacerte shot back with a link to an article from La Presse, in which the photo was originally published. In short, the Facebook battle has dissolved into he-said-she-said inanity.

Despite the remaining tension between residents, Mile End has managed, like so many times before, to recuperate. Molly Tonken, a McGill U2 Arts student who shares a backyard with the Gate David synagogue, said she “loves the neighborhood so much…this may come off as strange, but the Hasidic community gives it character. Children are always outside playing, and there is a strong feeling of safety. It’s a refreshing sense of community.” Tonken’s genuine optimism may stem from her newness to the neighborhood, but perfectly embodies the sort of attitude Mile End and Outremont needs right now – a fresh, even naive, conception of what a neighborhood can be. It’s sad, in a way, that it has taken a newcomer to embrace the pluralism that the neighbourhood could stand for.

The underlying irony of the strife on Hutchison can be found, simply, in the name of Lacerte’s blog: “Accommodements Outremont”). After a summer of referendums, pamphlets, photos, and snide Facebook jabs, Outremont is no more accommodating than it was before. It is uncertain what the future holds for this neighborhood, as young people cruise in, restaurants turn over, and the Hasidic community continues to grow. But the most recent squabble on the “Friends of Hutchison Street” Facebook page may give us a clue:

Friends of Hutchinson Street/ Les Amis de la Rue Hutchinson: “The world population hit seven billion today, now, more than ever, we need to SHARE.”

Pierre Lacerte: “Share? Great idea. What are you planning to start with?”


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