Montreal's Belz Hasidic community celebrates spiritual leader's visit

Red carpets, dancing crowds, bonfires and street celebrations are some of the ways Montreal's Belz orthodox Jewish community have marked a rare visit by their spiritual leader over the past several days.

The visit began with a welcome ceremony on Tuesday and ended Saturday night when a large crowd attended a midnight procession last night to honour Rabbi Yissachar Dov Rokeach, who is visiting the city for the first time in two decades. 

Over the past week, the rabbi has been given a rock star-like greeting as large crowds have gathered to catch a glimpse of the long-serving spiritual leader, who has led the community since 1966.

"It's historic, it's very emotional, it's the time we've been waiting for, for so long," community member Chezky Reiss said.

He said the 70-year-old leader is in poor health and rarely travels outside of Israel.

Reiss said thousands of out-of-towners have come for the events, which included bonfires and festive meals on Wednesday and Thursday to mark the Jewish holiday of Lag B'Omer, which commemorates the the revelation of the kabbalah, the core text of Jewish mysticism.

The ultra-orthodox Belz community, a Hasidic group that traces its roots to Eastern Europe, counts between 2,000 and 3,000 members in Montreal.

Rabbi Yissachar Dov Rokeach has been credited with overseeing the sect's post-Holocaust rebuilding, which has led to the establishment of communities in Canada, Europe and the United States.

In the past, tensions have flared between the Hasidic community and some of their non-Jewish neighbours in the city's Outremont borough.

In March a handful of citizens drew criticism for donning yellow badges on their clothing at a borough council meeting to protest the Jewish community's use of school buses.

The citizens said they were protesting the vehicles blocking the street, while others told them the badges evoked the Holocaust, when European Jews were forced to wear yellow stars.

In November 2016, citizens voted against allowing Hasidic Jews to open more synagogues on a main street in Outremont, sparking accusations of anti-Semitism.

This time, Reiss said the organizers made efforts to minimize traffic disruptions and noise in order to avoid a repeat of past tensions.

He said the community sent out letters and started a Twitter account to share photos and inform residents of what was happening.

They also hosted most of the festivities in a giant tent erected outside the residential zone.

While Reiss said he received "a few nasty letters," he said non-Jewish community members have been supportive, and many have even joined the crowds straining to see the rabbi.

"The majority of tension is people who don't understand what's happening," he said. 

Reiss said the rabbi is expected to keep a lower profile for the remainder of his visit, which ends Tuesday.