MONTREAL - Montreal's normally reserved Hasidic Jewish community has opened its doors a crack, inviting neighbours for a dialogue to ease tensions after a series of recent controversies.
The Hasidic population makes up about a quarter of the city’s Outremont neighbourhood, a tree-lined cosmopolitan district dotted with sidewalk cafes and French bistros.
From the outside, there’s a certain mystery and misunderstanding about the close-knit community, from its distinct garb — black coats and sidelocks for the men, long dresses for the women — to rumours about the extent of their religious rules and rituals.
Founded in Europe in the 18th century, the ultra-Orthodox sect teaches observers to show their love of God through daily actions _ such as shunning physical work and artificial power on the Sabbath.
A few dozen Hasidic families arrived in Montreal around the Second World War, settling in the city and expanding quickly alongside their francophone neighbours, with a birthrate several times the Quebec average.
Lately, the community has been in the headlines, thrust once again into the centre of the province's debates about accommodating minorities.
In March, a group of Hasidim celebrating a holiday on the street were involved in a heated dispute with a local city councillor known for challenging the community.
The shouting match drew attention after it was posted online and, ultimately, led to a temporary ban on all religious processions in the district.
That clash followed a failed attempt last summer to expand the local synagogue. The move was blocked in a referendum — an eye-opener for many Hasidim as to how they were regarded by neighbours.
In response, the religious community has stepped outside its comfort zone and embarked on an informal public-relations blitz.
Two Hasidic men started a blog called outremonthassid.com, intended to open up an "honest and sincere dialogue with our neighbours here in Outremont."
At the same time, a group of Hasidic and non-Hasidic residents decided to organize a public meeting where residents could air grievances, share stories, and create a "friendlier" neighbourhood.
Over a hundred residents — some in the dark clothing typical of the Hasidim, others in jeans and t-shirts — crammed into a conference room in a local library on a recent sunny Sunday afternoon.
"It was really initiated around the time when we had the referendum on synagogue,” said Rabbi Mayer Feig, who helped lead the discussion.
"We wanted to open dialogue, and just talk."
Most at the meeting were sympathetic to that goal. Others offered up a laundry list of complaints, ranging from Hasidic drivers' penchant for double-parking to their lack of commitment to French.
"The effort isn't there," said Pierre Lacerte, who writes a blog critical of religious accommodation and led the fight against the synagogue's expansion.
Lacerte, though, was denounced by all but a small minority of the crowd at the meeting. One man, originally from France, suggested the framing of the debate needed to be rethought.
"In this kind of discussion, we talk about community against community... We need to start talking about individuals," said Hubert Hayoud, adding that his children get along well with his Hasidic neighbours, sometimes playing on their trampoline together.
Another resident was more blunt in her assessment of the complaints.
"I think it's motivated by racism," Elizabeth Ball said in an interview outside the meeting. "My kids make just as much noise as any other person's kids."
Things reached an ugly climax last summer in the lead-up to the referendum on the application to expand the synagogue.
Anonymous posters appeared on lampposts calling the synagogue "illegal," and at one point vandals broke into another synagogue and drew swastikas on the pulpit.
The 'No' side won by 243 votes to 212.
"I've never felt like that in my entire life," said Abe, a Hasid who asked only to be referred to by his first name, referring to a public meeting on the synagogue expansion.
"The air was thick. It was disheartening."
Abe said the gathering at the library had a much different feel, and it was heartwarming to see people finding common ground.
"I could stay here for hours," he said.
As much as they may try to avoid it, though, controversy is nothing new to Montreal's Hasidim.
In the past, the community has engaged in battles with Outremont council over the use of charter buses in residential streets and the placement of the eruv, the symbolic enclosure made of string used to carry items on the Sabbath.
Then, in 2006, news that the neighbourhood YMCA had switched to frosted windows to obscure Hasidic students' view of women in exercise wear helped ignite a torrent of discussion on so-called "reasonable accommodations," a debate about minority rights that has never quite subsided.
Feig said the community has learned from past disputes, and hopes the new effort at dialogue represents a step in the right direction.
"We're a closed kind of people, and we generally have very good relationship with our neighbours," he said.
"There are things we can do better. I don't say we're perfect, but no one is perfect. We'll try to do better."