Aug. 25, 2020 – By JANICE ARNOLD
MONTREAL – The Museum of Jewish Montreal (MJM), evicted from its premises in June, has resumed some of its popular walking tours through historic Jewish neighbourhoods, keeping alive its real-life presence while it assesses its future.
Led by trained guides, the family-friendly tours focus on little-known stories about Jewish life and intriguing personalities in the Plateau Mont-Royal and Mile End districts of yesteryear. COVID precautions are observed: Everyone must wear a mask and keep a safe distance.
Founder and executive director Zev Moses says MJM is using the “shocking” loss of its physical location as a time to review its mission, and he is “cautiously optimistic” MJM will have a new home by next year.
Since 2016, MJM had occupied a street-level storefront at the corner of St. Laurent Boulevard and Duluth Street, in the heart of what had been the Jewish immigrant district, and today’s trendy Plateau. The former industrial building was originally the Vineberg garment factory, dating to 1912.
MJM was preparing to reopen after being locked down since mid-March, when it received notice in May from a new landlord that the space was going to be leased to another tenant and that the museum would have to vacate by June 30, Moses said.
The timing was especially painful because MJM, which began as a virtual conception, was looking forward to its 10th anniversary celebration this year.
“We hope to have (a new place) by next spring, there’s a good possibility, but it will depend on where the pandemic and economy goes,” he said.
Moses, a rabbi’s son who holds a master’s degree in urban planning from the University of Pennsylvania, started MJM as an online portal where users could connect to Montreal Jewish history and culture interactively. Its signature feature was “mapping” key Jewish sites and linking them to people and events. The site also archives personal stories of the Montreal Jewish past.
In a reversal of the societal direction, Moses expanded into bricks and mortar, a gamble he said paid off and allowed MJM to reach a far broader audience, both in the Jewish community and general population.
Despite the name, MJM was never strictly a “museum,” and only in the past few years has been holding exhibitions by independent Canadian Jewish artists and rescuing artifacts of disappearing Jewish landmarks, like shop signs.
Rather, Moses conceived of MJM as a hub where Jews of all ages and identities could gather, and non-Jews would feel comfortable dropping in and learning a little about what Jews are all about.
Moses was particularly keen to showcase the diversity of the Montreal Jewish community and how it is an integral part of the city’s history and character.
A big draw was Fletcher’s, the food counter where modern twists on various ethnic Jewish cuisines could be sampled, as well as musical programs – typically informal klezmer performances by young artists. MJM strived to be a good neighbour, taking part in the Plateau’s festivals and forming ties with area community groups.
Moses said MJM was especially successful in attracting Jews under age 35 who might otherwise not be involved with community life, and in changing ill-informed images about Jews among Quebecers.
“It really had become a second home for many,” he said. So much so, that at about 1,200 square feet, including office space, MJM’s location was getting too small anyway, said Moses.
Those are his prime selling points as he seeks support for MJM’s continuation.
“If there is a silver lining, this has given us time to re-conceive what we will look like post-pandemic,” he said.
The walking tours, now in their ninth season, have been a major source of income, but with tourism down drastically, it would not have made sense to run the usual schedule this season, Moses noted, even if MJM was still open. Nevertheless, he felt it worthwhile to offer a limited number and is pleased to see Montrealers joining them.
“Why not take a walk with an expert and learn something you didn’t know about your city?” he asked. “These neighbourhoods today are very popular with students and families, but most don’t know the stories that are hidden in their own backyards.”
Three different tours are available, scheduled Tuesdays through Sundays. Bookings may be made at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“’Bubble tours” are also offered for private groups of up to eight family members or friends. In the coming months, MJM plans to launch virtual tours as well. Meanwhile, a variety of online programming is set to resume, after a summer break, at the end of August.
Between 55-60 percent of MJM’s revenue has come from private donors, perhaps six to seven percent of that from Federation CJA or the Jewish Community Foundation of Montreal, Moses said.
About 30 per cent was self-generating through rentals of the space, ticket sales, and the food counter’s receipts. The rest was government funding.
Moses said all nine permanent staff members have been retained, but in the summer, the number employed normally swells to about 30.