Quebec’s Paneful Dispute


In one part of Montreal, relations between a chasidic group and some non-Jewish neighbors are frosty these days.

Actually, they’re frosted.

At issue are the windows on a YMCA exercise room that faces, across an alley, the rear of a Satmar synagogue and day school. Because the Satmars objected to the sight of scantily dressed women working out when the Y renovated its century-old building 12 years ago, the Y, on the edge of the Outremont neighborhood, agreed to install blinds on the windows. The blinds wore out earlier this year, and the synagogue paid $3,500 to have tinted, opaque windows installed.

Now the Pilates practitioners are up in arms. In a test of religious accommodation, some Y members are petitioning for removal of the frosted windows. They object to the sunlight blocked from their exercise room, and to a religion’s strictures being imposed on non-members. "It’s like getting us to wear a veil," Renee Lavaillante, who started the petition, told the Toronto Globe and Mail. "Since we represent temptation, we’re being asked to hide."

In recent weeks, news stories and columnists in several Canadian publications have reported on Quebec’s latest kulturkampf.

Satmar leaders say they object to their students, especially teenage boys, being exposed to the sight of young women in Spandex. "We don’t want our kids to be tempted by today’s society," Rabbi Mayer Feig, director of the city’s Jewish Orthodox Council for Community Relations, told The Jewish Week Monday. "We have a belief in being dressed modestly, and we want out kids to see women dressed modestly."

Y leadership discussed the tinted windows with Y members before the installation took place, Rabbi Feig said. "Nobody had a problem with that."

The Y is considering the petitioners’ request, the rabbi said, adding, "We’re very good neighbors with the Y."

The controversy "got a great deal of media exposure. It raises the issue of clashing values: that’s a big issue in Quebec," says a Montreal-based reporter for the Canadian Jewish News. "It has more to do with the Muslim community, but it all got mixed up in the same pot," alluding to the issue of veils worn by women in Quebec’s growing Islamic community, which are under discussion in the province’s current provincial elections campaign.

Satmar’s Yetev Lev congregation in Montreal has about 300 member families, and its religious school educates some 120 teenage boys, half of them from the New York City area.

The Y did not return a call from The Jewish Week asking for comment.

The Quebec’s largely Catholic, heavily secular French-Canadian culture has for decades been considered inhospitable to Jews, especially to obviously Orthodox Jews.