Our Canadian confrères

The Pre-Sepharad conference discusses haredi hegemony, coexistence and the exclusion of women from public spaces.

Women of the Wall 521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Women of the Wall 521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
The weather in the first week of November in terms of the Canadian climate was rather clement, but for the small group of Israelis who attended the conference of the Sephardi Community Center in Montreal, it was unbearably cold. We were there on a mission to talk about the issues that affect daily life in Israeli Jewish society from a number of perspectives.
Our group consisted of Marius Shattner, former senior correspondent at the Jerusalem branch of AFP, the French news agency; Leah Shakdiel, a modern Orthodox feminist and lecturer from Yeroham; Daniel Haik, editor of the French version of the haredi daily Hamodia; and this reporter. Inside the large community center, which serves as home to Montreal’s various Jewish communities, the atmosphere was warm and cheerful.
However, a closer look at the local participants revealed a genuine concern for Israel – particularly Jerusalem, with its various conflicts.
“Our life is here,” a middle-aged woman explained.
“I’ve been living here since my family left Morocco more than 30 years ago, but we are all concerned about anything that happens in Jerusalem. It has a profound impact on our life here, whether we like it or not.”
The Sephardi community of Montreal holds a Sepharad Festival every year, which is a combination of lectures and conferences, followed by a week of cultural events, many of which feature Israeli singers and musicians. This year, the Pre-Sepharad – the conference that takes place before the festival – focused almost entirely on current issues of Jewish life in Jerusalem, such as the exclusion of women from public spaces, talmudic studies by and for women; and the coexistence of haredim and non-haredim. In regard to the latter, it seems that the reason behind Jewish Montrealers’ interest is not only cultural but also reflects what many expressed as “one of the serious problems in our community” – the difficult relationship between the haredi circles and the rest of the Jewish community, the Sephardim in particular.
Sonia Sarah Lipsic, who was born in Morocco and raised in France, founded Montreal’s first pluralistic beit midrash, located in the Sephardi Community Center. Lipsic, who has a PhD in sociology and has published several books on various aspects of Jewish feminism and the growing interest of women in talmudic studies, puts an emphasis on this trend.
Aleph, her beit midrash, has gained the confidence and interest of her community in the three years since its establishment. It is a very active place of study, offering a wide variety of courses, lectures and cultural activities.
Lipsic studied in Jerusalem at the Elul beit midrash a few years ago and connects her Montreal project with her own experience as a Talmudic student in Israel.
Lipsic and the director of the Sephardi Community Center, Robert Abitbol, are the main figures behind the decision to focus the conference on these topics and to invite participants from Israel.
The five-day conference included lectures on women’s prayer groups in Israel and other Jewish communities; an update on the exclusion of women from public spaces; and a series of lectures on the daily life of haredim in Jerusalem, including the recent programs that enable young haredim to receive professional training and academic education so they can enter the workforce. A series of films, made by students and graduates of the Ma’aleh film school in Jerusalem, were screened, followed by panel discussions. The films focused on daily life and the particular aspects of religious issues – haredi or religious.
Elias Levy, the senior correspondent of The Canadian Jewish News, reported daily on the conference.
He said that besides other issues and causes for concern, the Jewish community in Montreal was facing a growing tendency of the young generation to be attracted by the haredi circle, especially Chabad, which is very active in education and bringing people closer to Jewish observance, “too often in total opposition to their parents, who feel they are literally losing their children to strict religion.”
During the lecture on new trends in the haredi community in Israel – which was very well attended – most of the questions at the end focused on the effects of Montreal’s Jewish youth’s becoming more religious. One of the attendees illustrated the problem through her own experience. She said that although she and her husband, both from North Africa, kept a kosher home and observed Shabbat and the Jewish holidays, their daughter, whom they sent to a Chabad school to prevent assimilation, decided to become a member of Chabad herself. “Since then, she got married and has children but refuses to come to our home and sees us very rarely because now we are not religious enough for her – and the rabbis there accept that. That is not Jewish in my eyes,” she said.
At the end of the conference, the Israeli participants had no doubt about the centrality of anything that happened in Jerusalem and its impact on the Jewish community in Montreal, as well as other Jewish communities in Canada.
“Whatever happens in Jerusalem is an indication for us here, whether we include it in our reality or reject it,” said Levy. “We are facing some of the same problems, such as the growing influence and hegemony of the haredim. Despite all the differences between Canada and Israel, we are tuned in to all the changes and developments.”
Elias and most of the organizers and participants, who all came from traditional North African Jewish families, concurred that they face a real challenge between the new trend towards stricter religious observance and their more tolerant ancient tradition. “So when we hear that in Jerusalem there is a renewal of interest in anything Jewish, but away from the strict paths of haredi obedience,” said one of the participants in regard to women and Torah studies in Israel, “it gives us some hope. After all, none of us wants to distance ourselves from our Jewish traditions; we just don’t want to find our way only in the haredi option.”
This community’s avid interest in Jerusalem and in Israel is also connected to the fact that most of them have relatives here. Lipsic says that although their lives are deeply rooted in Canada and in Montreal, there is no doubt that anything that happens in Jerusalem “has a tremendous impact on us here – our eyes are almost always turned towards Jerusalem.” •