Let’s Talk About Jewish France

Between Us
Let’s Talk About Jewish France

Steve Rakitt

Let’s talk about…the Jews of France.

Earlier this week, I traveled with 45 Federation volunteers and professionals (seven of us from the DC area) on a 48 hour JFNA National Solidarity Mission to France. Our brief visit was, all at once, disconcerting, enlightening and inspiring.

Within two hours of landing in Paris, we entered The Victoire Synagogue, passing three combat-ready French soldiers guarding the outside. The juxtaposition of security and insecurity, a long history and uncertainty about the future, was the leitmotif of our visit.

The Jews of France are a proud community of 500,000; the third-largest Jewish community in the world. Yet they are anxious; not only because of the 800 anti-Semitic attacks last year (a 100% increase over 2013), but because the rapidly growing Muslim population – including some portion who subscribe to radical Islamic thinking – now constitutes 10% of the total French population of 60 million people. Over 1,000 French citizens have traveled to Syria to train with ISIS. The French unemployment rate is 20%. No wonder a Jewish community leader said to us, “The French Jewish community is in the middle of a crisis living in a country in the middle of a crisis.”

It is against this backdrop that we made the trip – to meet with members of the community and government representatives – but most of all, to stand in solidarity with the French Jewish community during these difficult days.

The Victoire Synagogue was built in 1874 with support from the Rothschild family. Colonel Alfred Dreyfus was married on the bimah. It is an imposing structure with a magnificent, yet warm, sanctuary, testament to the longevity, pride and wealth of the French Jewish community. In stark contrast and only three hours later, we stood outside in the cold and blustery weather, facing a shuttered Hyper Casher Supermarket to recite kaddish for four Jewish victims of the anti-Semitic Islamist terror attack in this market only one month ago.

Between our visit to the synagogue and paying our respects at the supermarket, we stopped at an Israel Fair coordinated by the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI). The turnout was mind-boggling: We learned that over the course of six hours, more than 5,000 young adults crowded into a large room to learn about long-term (five months to a year) MASA programs in Israel, including gap year programs, university study, volunteer opportunities and much more. Sixty programs were represented that day and the enormous outpouring reflected both their strong connection to Israel and the anxiety felt by the community. Aliyah information fairs are also held regularly.

Over the two days, we met with Jewish community leaders, French government officials, the Israeli (Yossi Gal) and American (Jane D. Hartley) Ambassadors to France, the former Managing Editor of Charlie Hebdo Magazine, heard a dialogue between the former Mufti of Marseilles and the rabbinic chair of the Judeo-Muslim Friendship Association and met Jewish hostages from Hyper Casher Supermarket and the policeman who saved them.

We also visited Lucien Hirsch, the oldest Jewish school in Europe. The building, despite the armed soldiers stationed outside, feIt as vibrant as any Jewish day school in America. It is filled with 1,200 smiling and energetic children (among the 32,000 who go to Jewish day schools in France) – and according to the principal and the children with whom we spoke – cautiously optimistic about their future.

Though the situation in France is tumultuous, many we spoke with do not yet plan to leave. “This is our home,” they said, “and this is where we intend to stay.” Therefore, enhancing security at the 600 Jewish institutions throughout France is paramount, since the soldiers stationed outside will not be there for the long term. Some Jewish families are relocating from Paris suburbs that have large Muslim populations to other areas. Others are taking their children out of public schools and enrolling them in either Jewish schools (there are currently 30,000 students in Jewish day schools) or non-Jewish private schools. Many remove their kippot when walking outside and others downplay their Jewish identity and connection to the community by staying away completely.

And thanks to your continued support of The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington’s annual campaign and our overseas partner JAFI, a growing number have made aliyah or are considering doing so in the future. In 2014, 7,000 French Jews made aliyah and up to 15,000 are anticipated to in 2015.

This is both the nuance and the complexity of Jewish France today: for those who wish to leave, Israel will welcome them with open arms and an open heart. For those who wish to stay and build on millennia of French Jewish history and heritage, their community must remain strong and vital, become more secure and chart a course through these difficult days.

No matter their choice, we must be supportive. What happens to a Jew in France happens to us. What happens to us, happens to Jews around the world. It is our opportunity – and our responsibility – to stand with them.

Please consider joining us in helping the French Jewish community enhance its security. The Jewish Agency for Israel, working with French Jewish organizations, estimates that it will take $12 million dollars to install security systems in Jewish institutions throughout the country. The French Jewish community will raise 80% of the needed funds; Federations in North America are opening mailboxes to help raise the other 20% in partnership with French Jewry. One hundred percent of all funds raised will go directly to Jewish community security needs in France. Please click on the box below to make your contribution.

Click to Support Jewish Community in France

Here are three ways to Make It Yours this week:

  • Celebrate Jewish Disability Awareness Month with a conversation on the future of disability inclusion in our community on Sunday, February 22.
  • Register for The Network Event, a memorable evening of networking with business leaders and a special presentation by ESPN’s Mike Greenberg of Mike and Mike on Thursday, February 26.
  • Sign up to make a difference on Good Deeds Daythe annual, international day of giving back this Sunday, March 15

Video Reflections