Thursday, December 04, 2014

Time limit put on Jewish festival huts in Montreal borough an ‘outrage’ critics say 

For decades, Hasidic Jews in the Montreal borough of Outremont have been erecting temporary huts called sukkahs for the harvest holiday of Sukkot. Dwelling in the structures, built on balconies or in yards, during the week-long holiday is considered a biblically mandated obligation by many Orthodox Jews.

But in the latest flare-up between Outremont's growing Hasidic population and opponents who object to the accommodation of their religious practices, borough council voted this week to curtail the period during which sukkahs can be built.

To the dismay of borough Mayor Marie Cinq-Mars, who said the change will sow discord, a majority of councillors voted to restrict construction of sukkahs to three business days before the fall holiday and to order that they be dismantled three business days after it ends.

"We are positioning ourselves as the most restrictive municipality in the world," Councillor Mindy Pollak, who is a Hasid, said before the vote Monday night.

"We are continuing to uphold the unfortunate, long-standing tradition of confrontation, distrust, lack of response to the needs of our citizens and a worsening of the cohabitation between neighbours. This is an outrage. I vote against it."

Ms. Pollak had initially proposed extending the borough's existing rule — which allows sukkahs a total of 15 days — to provide Jews seven days before the holiday for construction and seven days after to take them down. That would have brought Outremont in line with neighbouring boroughs. But instead Councillor Céline Forget, a longtime foe of the Hasidim, amended the proposal to three days before and after the holiday.

Pierre Lacerte, an Outremont resident who runs a blog dedicated to exposing alleged zoning and parking violations by his Hasidic neighbours, has complained that the sukkahs are an eyesore and a fire hazard. In a blog post in October he described the sukkahs as "a patchwork of construction materials, sometimes worm-eaten and generally unaesthetic."

During the discussion Monday night, Councillor Jacqueline Gremaud took offence when people drew a parallel between sukkahs and Christmas trees, which are not subject to any time limit.

"It is a comparison I find a little funny because a Christmas tree is just a tree. I don't live in it. I'm not a squirrel," she said. "I say that just to bring a little levity into the evening."

It is unlikely the borough administration will be laughing if its new restriction on sukkahs faces a court challenge. The Supreme Court of Canada ruled in 2004 that a Montreal condominium complex's bylaws prohibiting sukkahs violated residents' freedom of religion.

Steven Slimovitch, a lawyer who represented the Jewish organization B'nai Brith in that case, predicted Outremont's bylaw change will end up before the high court. "It's clearly not a move along the path of respect for the concept of freedom of religion," he said.

Max Lieberman, a member of Outremont's Hasidic community, said a court challenge is being strongly considered. "Every year there's something new about how to target the Jews. This year it's sukkahs," he said. "Jews live worldwide in all different cities and towns. There's not a borough in the world that has such restrictive rules."

It would not be the community's first constitutional challenge. In 2001, the Hasidim won a court case against Outremont, which had banned them from erecting an eruv, a symbolic string boundary that allows orthodox Jews to perform tasks that would otherwise be off limits on the Sabbath.

Ms. Cinq-Mars said in an interview that the sukkahs generate only a handful of complaints every year. "Are we going to open a debate because we've received a few complaints?" she asked. "Cohabitation is not always easy in Outremont. And good relations are fragile, very fragile."

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