The story of
Friends of Hutchison
In 2011 I was living on Hutchison Street,
a north-south route just west of av. du Parc that bisects Mile End from Outremont.
This is where the Hasidim of Montreal live, a community of about 26,000 whose homes, shops and synagogues form a subculture within an already diverse and vibrant city.
For the most part, I paid them no attention except to appreciate their constant presence on the street, as it meant my bicycle never got stolen. Occasionally there would be a flyer or petition in my mailbox protesting some Hasidic behaviour or action.
I'd just put the flyer in the recycling bin.
But that summer things seemed to be heating up. I was asked to sign a petition to block a synagogue on the street from renovating. A group of people even protested with signs. A city councillor, Celine Forget, was going door to door looking for support and knocking only on non-Jewish doors (obvious because of the mezuzah on the doorframes).
the Hasidim out of Outremont.
At the end of the day, they succeeded in forcing a referendum whose sole goal was to block the renovation of a 100 year old synagogue. The work was to add a bathroom on the ground floor and extend part of the back wall 10 feet into its garden.
A very typical renovation for this type of building on this type of street.
I suddenly realized two things:
(i) none of these people made any attempt to dialogue with the Hasidim,
and (ii) they were just nasty antisemites.
Well, I thought, two can play this game.
So I made a flyer. English on one side, French on the other. Why do we have to be so antagonistic? Why can't we just sit down and deal with each other like adults? I went door to door for a week and a half. I argued with so many people who thought the Hasidic were louche and taking over. When I knocked on Hasidic doors I had to convince them not to shut me out. It was exhausting.
I had never done anything even remotely like this.
But then I got a phone call. It was a Hasidic neighbour who had seen my flyer and wanted to know if it was true, if there really was someone out there who supported them.
I went over to Elka's home right away, and sat with her, her husband Jacob and daughter Mindy. It was the beginning of everything.
As the referendum approached, I made more flyers and again went door to door. We needed to win the referendum and just let the Hasidim get on with their lives. I couldn't fathom for a minute how this had become such a big ask.
On the day of the referendum we were now a sizeable group outside the Mile End Library, turning heads because no one had ever seen the Hasidim mingling with everyone else. Most people had never even spoken with a Hasidic person before, let alone hung out with them and ate their cookies.
We lost the referendum by 11 votes. But as Elka said so presciently, "Leila we may have lost the referendum but we won a community!"
We needed to bring people together! Later that summer we participated in two street fairs, and a few months later, in June 2012, we organized a public assembly.
We were so unsure of how it would go. People told us the Hasidim wouldn't come, that they wouldn't let their women attend, that the men would not sit next to women they did not know. Other people told us to stop meddling. And some wondered how much we were getting paid by the "Jewish lobby" to do this.
But the day finally came and we had over 200 people crammed into the Mile End Library for almost 4 hours! It went great! We all discovered how articulate they are, how bilingual they are, how funny and kind they are.
And how vociferous and awful are the people who want them out of the neighbourhood. And yes, we had fights.
And we were off! Over the next couple of years we organized events, participated in activities, worked with other groups and organizations, and consulted with the borough and the city. No other community group had ever existed like Friends of Hutchison/Les Amis de la rue Hutchison. We brought Hasidim and non-Hasidim together, educated the public, chipped away at stereotypes and misconceptions, and just generally put a face on otherwise faceless people.
We held events to explain various customs and holidays (a Purim Walk, a public Sukkot, lighting the Menorah), and organized activities to contribute to the community (neighbourhood gardening, film screening, Yiddish storytelling), and participate in events (Journée de bon voisins, public assemblies, school visits).
We were now a core group of about a dozen people, with myself and Mindy Pollak at the centre.
But the most amazing thing of all was the emergence of Mindy Pollak as a political force. Smart as a whip and well spoken in French, Mindy quickly and easily became our spokesperson and public face.
By 2013, the idea of running for local office in that fall's municipal election took off. We had the support of the Hasidic community––no small thing considering that a Hasidic woman had never held office anywhere, and a Hasidic candidate had never been elected in Montreal.
She ran with Projet Montréal, a local progressive party who had supported Friends of Hutchison since our early events. I was campaign manager for their team of five councilors for Outremont. After a long hard battle, at the age of 25, Mindy Pollak won her seat in Outremont, becoming the very first Hasidic woman to hold public office in the world.
The rest of her team did not make it that term, and her early years on council were filled with antagonism and in-fighting as she never had the support of the other councilors or the borough mayor. But four years later, in 2016, Mindy ran again, and this time she was able to sit in a much friendlier council with four other representatives from Projet Montréal, including the borough mayor.
By 2018, Friends of Hutchison had quieted down. We no longer had to battle the city council day in day out, and the people who were consistently against the Hasidim no longer had the sympathy of the public at large. As well, I had left the neighbourhood and was living elsewhere. We'd meet every now and then and take part in the occasional activity, but for the most part the many little fires that had been raging in 2011 had been put out and many of us focused on other things.
In the municipal elections of 2021, Mindy Pollak won in her riding again in a clear victory. Watch this site for updates!