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The result of the Gate David referendum is symptomatic of the uneasy relationship between Montreal's Hasidic community and its secular neighbours. (Peter McCabe for The Globe and Mail/Peter McCabe for The Globe and Mail)
The result of the Gate David referendum is symptomatic of the uneasy relationship between Montreal's Hasidic community and its secular neighbours. (Peter McCabe for The Globe and Mail/Peter McCabe for The Globe and Mail)

A Montreal synagogue feels the sting of a neighbourhood's animosity Add to ...

One day this month, members of an ultra-orthodox Jewish congregation in Montreal threw open the doors of their small synagogue to invite neighbours in for a rare glimpse behind the curtain of their normally insular community.

Amid the aging prayer books and cramped quarters, congregants had a plan: Overcome suspicions and gain support for a minor expansion at the back of their building.

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On Monday morning, however, the congregation had a rude awakening. Despite the outreach effort, neighbours rejected the synagogue's expansion plan in a referendum - a setback not only for the Gate David congregation, but for the uneasy relationship between Montreal's expanding Hasidic community and its secular neighbours.

"We wanted to show openness," said Mayer Feig, a member of one of the congregation's 30 families. "We did everything by the book. With these results, we feel terrible."

The vote Sunday roiled tensions on the quiet residential street where the synagogue is located, a tree-shaded artery where French, English and Yiddish can be heard flowing out of open windows.

The rejection by a vote of 53 per cent marked the success of a campaign by a small but organized core of opponents who keep meticulous tabs on what it perceives as the transgressions of Montreal's Hasidic Jews. The driving force behind the No side, former journalist Pierre Lacerte, maintains a blog that steadfastly watches the Hasidim and catalogues everything from unkempt properties to alleged political influence on elected officials. In a post last year, he lamented that Hasidic schools had been operating illegally for years, "yet today, it's still Torah as usual." (Mr. Lacerte recently won a court ruling in his favour against an attempted restraining order by a prominent member of the Hasidic community).

"They [the Hasidim]don't care about their neighbours and their environment. They do what they want, when they want," said Mr. Lacerte, who characterizes the community as a "powerful lobby" and said the synagogue expansion would have increased traffic on the street.

Mr. Feig said that since 2004 his Hasidic congregation has been seeking to restore and expand the Gate David on Hutchison Street, which straddles Montreal's Mile End neighbourhood and Outremont. The congregation has occupied the building for 60 years and wanted to add a bathroom and expand the cloakroom, which is currently so small that congregants hang their coats in the sanctuary. Other renovations would have improved the view of the sanctuary for female congregants, who pray on the mezzanine level.

After scaling back its plans, limiting them to a 10-foot extension in the back, the congregation obtained the green light from their municipal borough council. Deputy NDP leader Thomas Mulcair, the local MP, also backed the project.

"That community has been there for a long time. They have to be accommodated to allow them to continue to have a vital place for their community," Mr. Mulcair said in an interview on Tuesday. "They followed all the rules, they played it by the book."

But opponents collected enough signatures to force a referendum, which tapped into simmering grievances against the devoutly religious Hasidic minority that makes up about 20 per cent of the population of Outremont. In the end, 243 people cast ballots against the enlargement, enough to scuttle the plan.

It is not the first flashpoint between the Hasidim and their neighbours. Over the years flare-ups have erupted over issues including a municipal bathing-suit ban in public parks (defeated in court) and the frosting of windows at a neighbourhood YMCA at the behest of a Hasidic congregation next door (the YMCA backtracked).

On Monday, while tempers flared on Hutchison St. - one man confronted Mr. Lacerte on the street and accused him of racism - some began to work to pick up the pieces. Mr. Mulcair voiced disappointment that the expansion was rejected, but saw a silver lining in the fact the referendum prodded the Hasidic community into building bridges with its non-Hasidic neighbours.

Leila Marshy, a resident of Palestinian descent who lives a few doors down from the synagogue, became so troubled by the tone of the No forces in the referendum, she created a group called Friends of Hutchison Street and is planning a community barbecue. "The No side was nurturing an intolerant attitude and spreading it," Ms. Marshy said. "That's not the real Montreal. Montreal is bigger and better than that."

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