Monday, June 10, 2013
On Parc Ave. in Mile End, there's a library housed in a former Anglican church. Next door to the library are a Greek cleaners and a Japanese sushi restaurant, and there's an Italian children's-wear shop across the street.
In this multicultural setting, a meeting of the Friends of Hutchison and Outremont Hassid took place on Sunday afternoon, the second annual event of this nature.
The purpose of the get-together at the Mile End Library, which drew around 150 people, was for neighbours to meet neighbours and to put an end to the enmity toward the Hasidic community that has been raised in recent years.
The meeting was chaired by two women: one Hassid and one Palestinian.
"Our goal is to live in peace and harmony," said Mindy Pollak. "We want to get people talking and building bridges to defuse the tension."
"We don't have all the solutions and we're not going to solve every problem today, so let's just talk and find some common ground," said Leila Marshy.
The catalyst for this movement was the planned modernization and expansion of a 60-year-old synagogue two years ago. The Gate David building on Hutchison St. had applied for a permit to put in a ground-floor bathroom and cloakroom to accommodate elderly worshippers and to slightly expand their building by 10 feet in back.
"Everything was going well — we had a permit and everything was within the law — until one individual started spreading lies and hatred," said Mayer Feig, who belongs to the synagogue.
According to city bylaws, the area is zoned residential, but the synagogue was grandfathered because it has been there for so long. Citizens who were worried about increased traffic and other concerns began circulating flyers urging residents to sign a referendum to stop the expansion project.
Marshy was sitting on her balcony one day, watching two people distribute flyers up and down her street. "They were going door to door, but not to the Jewish homes, which are immediately identifiable by the mezuzah on the door," she said.
"I saw the red flags of intolerance. This was so ridiculous, I decided to do something."
The Friends of Hutchison was formed as a neighbourhood group that would meet and recognize residents' similarities as well as their differences.
"People look at a community as a block. We Hassid may all dress alike, but underneath we're all individuals," said Pollak.
Last year 200 people showed up for the inaugural meeting. One of them was community stalwart and businessman Jimmy Zoubris, who turned up again on Sunday.
"This is a wonderful thing," he said. "My family has been in this community for 40 years, and we've seen the evolution of the community. A meeting like this is a nice way to get together and to learn to cohabit."
Dina Saikali, who described herself as an Egyptian Christian, but above all else a Canadian, also attended both meetings.
"I came because I believe in neighbours talking to each other and getting to know each other," she said. "People generalize, and it's important to talk to people as individuals and not categorize.
"Neighbours always have problems — I have some young people next door who play loud music. Instead of saying all young people play loud music, I go and talk to them as individuals."
"What kind of neighbourhood do we want to live in? One that's safe, warm, peaceful, tolerant and respectful," Pollak said to loud applause from those gathered on Sunday.
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