Thursday, May 03, 2012

A hope for harmony on Hutchison 

Hutchison is one of those streets that most city-dwellers dream about: leafy, quiet but only minutes—seconds, even—away from one of the city's principal thoroughfares. But every now and then, tempers will flare over some niggling local issue, with the added twist that the people who are doing the complaining are white francophones, and the people they are complaining about are Hasidic Jews. The most recent mini-uproar involved a proposed, then cancelled by municipal order, nighttime procession to welcome a Hasidic rabbi from New York state in early April. A month before that, independent city councilor Céline Forget, a longtime Hasidim antagonist, was surrounded and loudly booed and jeered by a group of Hasids as they prepared to celebrate Purim. The grim encounter can be seen on YouTube.

Caught in the middle of the secular-Hasidim clash are Hutchison residents, who are increasingly saying they are sick of—and sickened by—the ongoing tension. This Sunday, May 6, the Friends of Hutchison Street residents organization are holding a public meeting and get-together that will, members hope, soothe some ruffled feathers and foster some much needed understanding.

Friends of Hutchison was born in the ashes of the failed referendum to allow the building of an extension on the Gate David of Bobov synagogue, a failure co-founder Leila Marshy blames on the concert­ed efforts of Forget, blogger Pierre Lacerte and a small handful of others. "I was sitting on my porch and could see [Forget and Lacerte] going up and down the street, knocking on people's doors to remind them to vote," she says. "But they never knocked on any Hasidic people's doors. Not once. It seemed that they were completely outside the possibility of a dialogue."

Realizing there was a need for conversation, she and some like-minded friends set about engaging with the Hasidic community, and found them responsive. "We've wanted to put on our own public event for a while, and this coincides with what happened in March," she says. She admits to being shocked by what she calls the "terrible incident" on March 8. The Hasidim, she says, "behaved uncharacteristically. It was a rare outburst."

According to Meyer Feig, an active member of the Hasidic community and Gate David congregant, the mood on Hutchison is generally quite good. "You have a couple of people who vented their anger, and it's past," he says. "Some people are continually trying to stir up more trouble, putting papers through doorways and spreading lies and hate, but we see through their smokescreen."

One thing that would help foster a rapprochement would be some opening up of the Hasidic community. Feig says that even though he thinks relations are otherwise fine, there is "no question, we need to do a better job. We don't have to change our lifestyle, and we won't. But we are open to dialogue, to discussion, to forums in which we can explain ourselves."

He admits the need is pressing: "We know we're under a microscope, we know we're being watched."

For Marshy, who describes herself as "half-Palestinian, half-Newfie—I tell a joke and it bombs," she sees "a lot of willingness on the Hasidim's part to open up. When the only activity you see [out­side your community] is by people who are against you, it can be scary. But [after the 2011 referendum] they looked up and saw a whole neighbourhood saying, 'We support you.'"

The Friends of Hutchison event takes place on Sunday, May 6 from 1–4 p.m. outside the Mile End library (5434 Parc). Look for them on Facebook.


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