If you’re young, hip, Jewish and living in Montreal, you might know Rabbi Yisroel Bernath.

He’s the 27-year-old Chabad-Lubavitch rabbi who makes a point of getting around town and connecting with the mostly young, unaffiliated Jews who call the trendy Monkland Village area home. Since opening in November 2008, his Chabad of NDG – a reference to the neighborhood’s official name on Montreal’s West End – has been packing them in, leading locals to speak in terms of a spiritual revival taking place.

Among them, 29-year-old Pascale Gozlan credits Bernath and his Chabad House with providing the spiritual outlet she was looking for.

“I started working and living my life, and that’s when I started feeling the need for something more fulfilling,” says the Montreal native, who was raised in a traditional Jewish home, but attended a private secular high school.

She dabbled in meditation, but eventually heard from a friend about Bernath’s Kabbalah class. One session, she says, and she was hooked.

“The nicest thing it did for me was show me how much spirituality is in Judaism,” explains Gozlan. “I find that a lot of people look for spirituality in [other places] and look at Judaism as just laws, but there’s so much spirituality, and that’s what I was looking for.”

But it’s not just content that impresses Gozlan, who attends three classes at the center each week. It’s the whole atmosphere.

“[We’re] learning in a spiritual setting where everybody is very connected. I find it attracts people who have depth to them,” says Gozlan.

“This is not just a place to go,” echoes Bernath, who arrived in the Canadian city years ago with his wife Sara to run a program at a community day school. “People are very interested and quick. It’s a place of meaning and growth.”

After moving to Montreal, the Bernaths saw a need for organized outreach among young Jews in what he calls the “crossroads” age, somewhere between graduate school and full-time careers. They started out with students at Concordia University’s Loyola campus and in the nearby hangout of Monkland Village. From their Chabad House, Yisroel Bernath still retains the title as the university’s official Jewish chaplain.

Located on a prime piece of real estate on Monkland Avenue in the heart of a village teeming with boutiques, cafes and lots of young professionals, the Chabad House features a kosher, vegan, organic establishment of its own upstairs, Café Harvard.

The Bernaths hold weekly Shabbat meals at the center, as well as regular weekday activities. This past Passover, both of their public Seders were filled to capacity with around 70 attendees.

Adam Spiro met the rabbi, a Chicago native, just before the Monkland Avenue center opened. The 29-year-old lawyer had just moved to the area and decided to become more observant. His first Shabbat in town led him the Bernath home.

“It’s such a welcoming environment,” says Spiro. “Everyone feels that they belong here as a Jew among other Jews.”

Local residents enjoy an event at Chabad of NDG.
Local residents enjoy an event at Chabad of NDG.

Spiro attended synagogue until his bar mitzvah, when his formal Jewish education came to an end. He began exploring Judaism again slowly over the years.

“Everyone is searching for something,” he says, “in their own way.”

Backing up Spiro’s assessment is the attendance figures for Bernath’s Jewish mysticism course, The Kabbalah of Now, which began with just 15 students, but now counts some 130 souls.

“I don’t know where they come from or how it happened,” marvels the rabbi, who describes the class as a mix of authentic Jewish mysticism peppered with a mix of modern psychology. “The growth is unreal. I have to keep up with it.”

Kathy Suzyn, a 33-year-old hairdresser, says that a lot of it boils down to the vibe given off by the Bernaths.

“He’s intelligent. He has that cool factor to him too, but he knows how to relate to people,” says Suzyn. “It’s a great relationship. People are open, and there’s a sense of family with the regulars.”

For those searching for vegetarian cooking classes or an exploration of the weekly torah portion with a Chasidic twist, they’ll find those things as well at the Chabad House, perhaps one of the few places in the world where children munched on tofu hot dogs at the Chanukah carnival.

Sara Bernath holds regular activities for women, as well, including challah-baking classes and a course titled Women in Jewish History.

“A lot of people feel this is their home, their community,” says Yisroel Bernath. “It’s an incredible thing.”