It has turned into a clash between skin and Scripture - and it's pitting a group of spandex-wearing fitness buffs in Montreal against an Orthodox sect of observant Jews.
Last spring, a local YMCA in Montreal installed four frosted windows in one of its exercise rooms to accommodate a neighbouring Hasidic synagogue and religious school. Its devout members complained that their teenaged boys were being distracted by the exposed flesh of women doing their Pilates, aerobics and other activities.
But now the windows have opened up a rift over whether the institution went too far to accommodate a minority. Some Y members have circulated a petition demanding the opaque windows be removed because they not only deprive the room of light, but allow a religious group to impose its ways on the majority.
"It's like getting us to wear a veil. Since we represent temptation, we're being asked to hide," Renée Lavaillante, who started the petition, said yesterday. "We shouldn't have to hide in order to exercise in Quebec. We're a secular state, and shouldn't hide ourselves for religious reasons."
The exercise room, located on the first storey of the Y on Park Avenue at the edge of Outremont, faces the back of the Yetev Lev synagogue and school, from which it is separated by an alley. The Jewish institutions also installed tinted windows on their buildings but members say they haven't been able to stop people from opening them or heading outside during breaks.
The Hasidic community says it is not out to stop women from exercising the way they like. Members just want to find a way to maintain their strict traditions in a secular world, and felt the windows - for which the congregation footed the $3,500 bill - were a reasonable solution.
"We don't want our kids to be tempted by today's society," community spokesman Mayer Feig said as he stood outside the synagogue, wearing the long black coat and sidelocks that are typical of his sect. As he spoke, a Hasidic woman pushing a baby stroller walked by in a below-the-knee skirt, thick stockings and wig.
"We have a belief in being dressed modestly, and we want our kids to see women dressed modestly," Mr. Weig said. In summertime, Hasidic children head off to a camp in the Laurentians to avoid seeing scantily dressed females on the street, he said. And televisions are banned from Hasidic households. "There's too much violence and sexuality today, and our religious beliefs don't want us to see those things. We believe in protecting our culture and religion."
The Yetev Lev synagogue serves about 300 families from the Satmar sect. The religious school, or yeshiva, educates about 120 boys 16 to 19 years old. About half of them, nearly all from New York, board at the school.
Serge St-André, director of the YMCA branch, said the Hasidim's request had been submitted to an advisory committee, which judged it to be reasonable. The Y had rejected a separate request by the Hasidic community to rent the Y pool but use only lifeguards of the same sex as the bathers.
"We are geographically at the junction of several communities, and the YMCA has to take on the colours of those communities," he said as he walked through the Y branch, located at the boundary between the affluent residents of Outremont on one side and the widely diverse neighbourhood of bagel bakeries, souvlaki shops and Italian cafés of the Mile End district on the other. "We try to be responsive to the requests of the community. It's a challenge to satisfy everyone."
As Mr. St-André discussed the issue inside the weight room, a Y member walked up to say he objected to the windows.
"We can't let ourselves be imposed upon by extremist religious groups. What's next? Separate gyms for women and for men? Wearing long pants and long sleeves to exercise?" Outremont resident Robert Dolbec asked. "They [the Hasidim]should cover their own windows. I respect their right to practise their religion, but not their right to impose their religion on us."
The congregation Yetev Lev, or Good Heart, has been at its current location since 1985. The Park Avenue YMCA has been at its location for a century, but it was only during extensive renovations ending in 1994 that the exercise room was built.
The frosted-window kerfuffle is just the latest flare-up between the fast-growing Hasidic community in Outremont and the larger secular community that surrounds it. In the 1980s, Outremont passed a bylaw banning the wearing of bathing suits in its public parks; the law was struck down as unconstitutional by Quebec Superior Court in 1985.
Conflicts erupt periodically between the two communities, although tensions are rarely far below the surface. Outremont residents quietly speak about the insular customs and swelling presence of their Hasidic neighbours, who embrace values rooted in 18th-century Poland. In an attempt to preserve their culture and strict religious rules, the Hasidim avoid contact with their non-Hasidic neighbours and send their children to separate schools. The Hasidim, who have large families, have grown to encompass 20 per cent of Outremont's 23,000 residents. Another 2,000 Hasidic Jews live in the adjacent Mile End district.
"Outremont is starting to become a ghetto," said one woman interviewed at the Y, declining to be named.
Various Quebec institutions have been struggling to reach reasonable accommodation with religious minorities in the province. Controversies have erupted over Muslim prayer rooms at universities, the wearing of the hijab, as well as the right to carry a kirpan, or Sikh dagger, to school.
Asher Wieder, a rabbi at the Yetev Lev synagogue, said he hoped the window row would be resolved peacefully. "We felt the way we worked it out was very fair. They still have light in the room and we help our children keep their traditions and religion," he said. "I think it's a good compromise."
Mr. St-André said he will discuss the controversy with the opposing sides to consider whether the Y's decision should be reviewed.