I spent about 5 1/2 days in France this past week. The first few days were spent in Sarcelles as part of a seminar for a group of Federation CEO’s and the second part was in Paris as a participant in the Jewish Agency for Israel’s Board of Governors meetings.
I learned a tremendous amount about this proud, vibrant Jewish community – the third largest in the world with a population of approximately 500,000.
Some of the negatives:
Anti-Semitism and anti-Israel activities are real (I have a copy of the 2015 Report on Anti-Semitism published by the Jewish Community Security Service on my desk highlighting every incident last year). We heard firsthand about the 2014 anti-Israel riots in the town of Sarcelles from its main Rabbi. At a dinner in Paris with my cousins, they shared with me that their children are not allowed to wear anything Jewishly identifiable in public anymore. While the Jewish community of France is less than 1% of the overall French population, Jews are 50% of those targeted by hate crimes. Outside the synagogues I attended for Kabbalat Shabbat services on Friday night and for lunch on Saturday afternoon, French military were patrolling the perimeters with automatic weapons. Last year, aliyah to Israel (that we help to facilitate through our Federation’s support of the Jewish Agency) spiked.
Some of the positives:
There are 286 Jewish Day Schools and 48 JCC’s in France. Observant Jews walked the streets of Sarcelles openly. In Paris, we learned that approximately half of the French Jewish community travels on vacation to Israel annually. Membership in Jewish youth movements is the norm. While I do not speak French, I was able to communicate with many community members in Hebrew as many of them seem to be fluent. There are more kosher restaurants in Paris than Tel Aviv or New York!
What’s the future of French Jewry? I can honestly say that after my time in France, I just don’t know. Several French Jews with whom I spoke talk about planning to make Aliyah to Israel. Many of the volunteer leaders of the Jewish community already have children living in Israel, and several people with whom I spoke talk about planning an eventual aliyah. Yet, the situation is complex. It’s hard to leave the wonders of France, where Napoleon gave Jews incredible freedom and rights. It’s hard to leave a society that gives so much vacation time from work, pays you 80% of your salary for two years if you lose your job and has a rich healthcare system (you will see shops for eyeglasses everywhere because eyeglasses are fully covered).
This week’s Torah portion, Shelach, contains the story of the spies who go to the land of Canaan. Ten return saying the land is unconquerable and two say that it is. I feel like I just “spied” on the land of France and on its Jewish community. Unlike those twelve spies who each had a definite opinion to give to Moses, I do not. There are too many variables including the upcoming French election, Brexit and its impact on Europe, the continuing inflow of immigrants from the Muslim world and their absorption into French society (reportedly a growing number of them are returning to France from Syria with ISIS training) and the state of the economy, to name just a few.
Last Shabbat I was hosted in a home in Sarcelles with a family of six. The parents were both born in Djerba. The homemade Sephardic food was exotic and delicious. We talked about the future of France, their children, their neighborhood and their professions. We talked about their connections to and love of Israel. We talked politics, both French and American (they had fascinating views on our own Presidential election). They love their lives in France. When I asked about their future, they responded that they are planning for their children to complete their education in France and then for each to move to Israel. Once the last one has left France, the parents will follow. Is this the plan that many Jews in France have? Do most have a plan? I just don’t know.
What I do know is that our Federation support has enhanced security in the Jewish community, helps provide for Israeli Shlichim (emissaries) to work in schools and provides both short and long term Israel experiences for young people to strengthen Jewish identity. Kol Yisrael Arevim zeh BaZeh – All Israel is Responsible One for the Other.
Shabbat Shalom. Je suis Juif.