Worlds Apart Yet Sharing Common Space: The Challenges of Places of Worship in Montreal

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Synagogue Machzikei Torah - Bernard

Synagogue Machzikei Torah - Bernard

by Frédéric Dejean, PhD

About Frédéric Dejean: Frederic grew up in France. He completed a PhD – a geographical approach of Evangelical Churches – at Paris-Nanterre University and INRS-UCS (Montreal) in Human Geography and Urban Studies. He moved to Montreal in 2011. He received in 2013 a FRSCQ postdoctoral fellowship to conduct a research at the urban planning department of the Université de Montréal.

I have been observing the Montreal religious landscape since 2008. It began with my doctoral thesis on Evangelical places of worships, and is continuing as a postdoctoral research at the Urban Planning department of the Université de Montréal. My current research focuses on the way the Montreal boroughs deal with the issue of places of worship, in a context characterized by new forms of religious practices in urban spaces.

I decided to include in my current fieldwork Outremont and the Plateau-Mont-Royal, two boroughs in which large Hasidic communities live. For a long time, I did not know if I should include those in my research because of the my preconceived idea that these two boroughs are quite unique and difficult to compare with what can be observed elsewhere. Many of my contacts – especially those working for the City of Montréal and for the boroughs – shared a similar feeling as well.

I finally asked myself the following question: is it true that the Hasidic communities are so unique that they need to be treated differently? Isn’t it just the opposite: treating them as being different, don’t we make them artificially different? To confirm this premise, it was necessary to include these communities in my research. That being said, I don’t forget that the many religious groups in Montreal has their own unique traits and specificities, and it would be in vain to try to reduce this diversity to a single model.

Storefront Places of Worship – Is it Unique to Montreal?

Eglise Cité de David

Eglise Cité de David

When considering places of worship, a trend that affects all of the religious groups arises: the multiplication of what are known in American Protestant world as “storefront churches”. These congregations are not located in buildings clearly identified by their architecture or their location in the urban space as places of worship, but instead they set up in small commercial premises with few interior fitting. These “storefront churches” have emerged in the United States during the “Great migration” between the 1910s and 1930s, when about two millions Afr-Americans left the southern States to settle in the northern industrial cities. In these cities, as religious supply did not increase as fast as the demand, small communities settled in old shops.


Mosquée Assalam

Today, Montreal has not only “storefront churches”, but also “storefront mosques”, “storefront synagogues” and “storefront community centers”. Such a situation reflects the necessity to recognize the existence of common dynamics among communities and religious groups, even though they differ in many aspects. These similarities stem from contextual effects. Researchers in sociology of religion perfectly showed how some minority religious groups must change their methods of organization in order to meet society’s expectations in terms of modes of religious organizations. With regards to places of worship in Montreal, we can assume that the scarcity of real estate and property opportunities and zoning by-laws drive religious groups to settle in stores, which results in occasional tensions with residents because of noise, parking or traffic problems.

The lesson of the example of the “storefront places of worship” is that understanding of religious dynamics at the scale of metropolitan Montreal has to be thought in a comparison approach, at least to avoid the trap of social “exceptionalism”, namely presuming a priori the uniqueness of a social fact.
However, I don’t deny that the discussions and debates raised by the presence of the Hassidic communities attests to its specific character.

Working on issues of cohabitation in urban context, a sentence of the British researcher Patsy Healey comes into my mind: “We puzzle over how to manage our co-existence in shared space”. Each of the terms is important. First, there is a “co-existence”, which implies a dialogical dimension. In urban context, we do not have the choice of the co-existence – unless to choose a radical separatism – and learning of city life is not so much that of the difference than that of the ability to live on good terms with it. Second, the space is shared, which means that one portion of a city is likely to be differently lived and practiced by citizens. Geography enables us to understand that space matters insofar as it is experienced by individuals and social groups. However, these groups are likely to give values that may come into conflict.

Understanding The External Appearance

Coming back to the example of “storefront synagogues” it is clear that debates and controversies focus on these places. A few of them appear to some of the non-Hassidic citizens as neglected because of their external appearance. I had the opportunity to visit many of these synagogues and community centers: I was struck by the fact that the lack of aesthetics on the outside was often unproportional to the beauty of the inside. It is as if the place embodies what the believer is, especially his concern for his spiritual life, in contrast to the physical appearances. However, as a citizen – I’m probably not the only one – cannot help seeing in this situation a lack of consideration toward those who do not attend these places of worship, even though members of the religious community did not mean to offend or provoke.

Such an example refers to the multiple ways people have to live and to understand their living spaces. While doing fieldwork among Evangelical communities in Montreal, numerous pastors of “storefront churches” were surprised when I told them that their place of worship could raise some suspicion on the part of residents simply because of its appearance, even though they would be quite open to the religious presence in their neighborhood. These pastors then explained to me that the important thing was the spiritual life of the believer, his daily attitude, not the appearance of the place of worship. Once again, we can only point a similarity with the debates around Hasidic synagogues and community centers.

To conclude, I return to Patsy Healey: what does the verb “manage” exactly mean? Probably more than a task involving only politicians and civil servants. It is an invitation to all citizens – Hasidic or not – to join the discussion. On this point, the Friends of Hutchison Street association is a great opportunity, provided not to be afraid to tackle the issues of different uses and values of space. The dialogue should certainly not be afraid of controversy; after all, we recognize our true friends in our common ability to deal with our points of disagreement. Finally, such a strong dialogue is undoubtedly one of the conditions to live in different social worlds, but in a common and shared space.


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Please Note: Comments on each post match the posts language so that the conversation flows smoothly.

  1. LP
    April 1, 2014

    Lot’s of interesting points raised here. I can attest that as a goyeh (or non-Jewish person whatever you prefer) I have no issues with having places of worship in Outremont and I like that I live in a diverse neighbourhood. But it does bother me to see some buildings visibly rundown. It takes away from the appeal of the neighbourhood and somehow I feel even more excluded from my Jewish neighbours than I already do when I passed by papered up windows on stores. I think the Machzikei Torah Synagogue pictured above looks perfectly fine, but right across the street, the once “grand-mere poule” restaurant is really looking disheveled… broken lanterns, half papered windows. I’m going to take a wild guess and assume it is a Hassidic bar? I’ve spotted some young guys sneak around the side door to get in and groups smoking cigarettes out front. I like seeing groups of friends having a good time together, we all need a break from work and studying, but I do wish the building was a little less ramshackled and shrouded with mystery. To be fair it also bothers me when restaurants and bars are too “hip” to display their name on a sign, so it’s a personal pet peeve!

    If I’m way off base with my comments I’d love some feedback. It’s my first time posting here.

    • Cheskie Weiss
      April 1, 2014

      Hi LP,
      Thanks for your comment. I don’t know of any “papered up windows on stores” you are referring to, maybe the one on Parc? Maybe its just there temporarily. In fact there are 37 hassidic owned store fronts in Outremont/Mile End and I don’t recall seeing even one that is “papered up”.
      As for the “grand mere poule”, for a long time they have actually wanted redo the outside facade but they are being blocked by the city, the author of this article told me that he verified this withe city officials. I understand that the city wants them to preserve the old facade but they wanted something more “modern”. Its a bad situation cause I hear so many people complaining about how ugly it is. Lets hope they work something out soon.

      • LP
        April 15, 2014

        Hi Cheskie,
        Thanks for the reply!
        That’s extremely interesting about the Grand mere poule restaurant. I wonder why the city is being adamant about preserving the old facade. The blue awning was nice once upon a time but at this point it’s really falling apart. Any change would be good! Let’s hope the city and Hassidic community can work this one out!

  2. LCD
    February 9, 2015

    I lived in Outront for the last 2.5 years, and although I am not Jewish, I loved my Hassid neighbors. I actually lived on Hutchison right across the street from one of the synagogues tucked in between houses, and I have to say that it never bothered me the noise, or celebrations and parking was never an issue. Living in an urban environment, even more so in a city as diverse as Montreal, there is no choice but to co-exist with different cultural backgrounds. This is what makes cities so unique, dynamic, vibrant and filled with life, and enrich communities. Of course there is going to be problems because we are all different, but it is knowing that we are all part of this society and that we have to work on solutions together and keep communication channels open what we need to understand. I am glad this blog was created because it is a window into to the Hassid community and help us understand your community a bit better!