The Museum of Jewish Montreal: “Digging up the Past to Inspire the Future”

Alexander Gelfand

When Zev Moses launched the Museum of Jewish Montreal as an online enterprise in 2010, his goal was to exhibit and share the history and heritage of the Montreal Jewish community—a community whose place in the Canadian imagination is analogous to that of New York City in the American one, with the Mile End neighborhood roughly similar to the Lower East Side.
“I saw the physical traces of Montreal’s long Jewish heritage disappearing,” Moses said. “So I began documenting it.” 
Moses created digital assets—such as an online oral history archive and an interactive map that traces the community back to 1760. But he and his team soon ventured into the physical world: first with popular walking tours of historic Jewish neighborhoods and pop-up exhibitions; then by cramming an event space, bookstore, and café into a 1200 square-foot storefront in 2016.
A few years later, the museum lost its lease. But thanks to an anonymous donor, in June 2022 it found a far larger home: a 10,000 square-foot, three-story edifice on Boulevard Saint-Laurent, aka the Main, just around the corner from one of the city’s oldest bagel bakeries. (The building comes with its own history: it previously housed several garment factories, a synagogue, and Lux, a beloved restaurant/bar/magazine shop that served some of the best poutine in the city.)
By then, the museum had already begun to expand its mandate, moving towards a broader embrace of Jewish arts and culture to provide new experiences for the Jewish community and visitors of all backgrounds.
For one, it began to invest in the creation and exhibition of contemporary art around Jewish themes. Currently, the museum is hosting Public Intimacy, a multimedia show by the Berlin-based artists Sophia Hirsch and Johannes Mundinger, that explores the tension between private and public spaces, individual freedom, and social responsibility.
Walk up the spiral staircase that dominates the building’s light-filled atrium, and you will find a labyrinth of curtains and a handful of prompts that invite visitors to engage in a game of concealment and revelation—and to consider rising xenophobia, racism, and antisemitism. (See image above by Johannes Mundinger. Public Intimacy runs through January 22nd, 2023.)
At the same time, Moses said, the museum began evolving into a community center for “anyone who was not comfortable in other spaces in the Jewish community—especially young people.” The new building, for example, includes rooms for workshops and meetings, along with larger spaces for events and gatherings.
There are historical reasons why such outreach is necessary. Despite the presence of a significant French-speaking Sephardic contingent, the Montreal Jewish community has historically been dominated by English-speaking Ashkenazim. And the circumstances that made the latter such a tight-knit group—a minority distinct from both the francophone Catholic majority and the anglophone Protestant establishment; an unusually large population of Holocaust survivors (more than 9,000 settled in Montreal after the war); and a longstanding tradition of antisemitism in Quebec—also bred a certain degree of insularity.

The museum’s new home on the former site of a famous café. Photo courtesy The Museum of Jewish Montreal.

To be fair, Moses said the situation has improved over the past decade. And many of the museum’s programs are intended to improve it even further. For example, the institution provides student research fellowships to support work in disciplines from visual art to theater.
It also started the Microgrant Program for Creative or Cultural Exploration. This innovative program for artists 18 to 35 combines support for creative projects that explore Jewish identity and culture with career-building seminars. One microgrant recipient, for instance, is working on The Brine Project, a multimedia exploration of pickled fish. A research fellow is working on a zine about the history of the city’s Jewish LGBTQ community.
The overarching objective is to nurture a community of young Jewish creatives while finding new ways of connecting young and old alike to Jewish life.
“We’re looking at outcomes that are beyond the programs themselves,” Moses said.
The range of the museum’s activities is especially impressive given the fact that the pandemic nearly ended them completely, as strict lockdowns imposed by the Quebec government devastated the institution’s earned income.
“It wasn’t looking so bright for us,” Moses admitted.
This being Canada, however, government support kept the place afloat, and generous provincial tax credits for charitable donations to museums and cultural organizations encouraged funders such as the Jewish Community Foundation of Montreal to make substantial contributions.
“There are organizations looking out for organizations like ours,” Moses said.
As a result, the museum’s endowment has grown to nearly $1.4 million since 2020, and Moses and his team are now concentrating on raising funds to provide multiyear programming support.
They haven’t lost their focus on grassroots development and network-building, however: staff members regularly meet with young, creative members of the Jewish community to ask what kinds of support and programming they want, and to connect them with each other.
“We’re not just here to put up artworks,” said Moses, who is already thinking about how the museum can further expand its offerings—for example, by complementing its walking tours with the kind of indoor, interactive experiences offered by the Lower East Side Tenement Museum.
The programming is already making an impact. Austin Henderson, the museum’s arts programming and communications manager, said that 140 people attended the opening of Public Intimacy, adding that “every big event we’ve had has been sold out.”
In its new home, the Museum of Jewish Montreal is building a local Jewish arts and culture network while providing cultural experiences for the larger community. Moses stressed that while the mandate has shifted, the institution will stay true to its origins.
“We’re focusing on arts, culture, and community-building. But we are built upon this foundation of heritage. We’re always digging up our past to inspire our present and future.” 

The museum is becoming a gathering place for Jewish creatives and the local community. Photo: Gabi Opas.

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