By Cindy Mindell
Earlier this month, the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) and the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) organized respective missions to Paris to express solidarity with the local Jewish community and assess the community’s needs.
Three members of the Connecticut Jewish community participated in the missions. Sydney Perry, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater New Haven, and Caryl Kligfeld, Jewish lay leader in Greater New Haven, were part of the JAFI group, along with members of JAFI’s board of governors, representatives from Jewish federations across North America, and senior professionals from JFNA, one of JAFI’s primary partners. Linda Russ, co-chair of UJA/Federation Westport Weston Wilton Norwalk and Eastern Fairfield County, joined fellow Jewish communal and civic leaders representing 18 communities around the country on the JFNA mission.
While in Paris, both groups met with government officials and Jewish leaders, visited the Grande Synagogue and Jewish institutions, held memorial services at the Hyper Cacher kosher supermarket, and met with a survivor of the attack and the family of a victim. They met with the U.S. and Israeli ambassadors to France, spoke with the editor-in-chief of the Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine, and attended an aliyah fair organized by JAFI.
More than 7,000 French Jews made aliyah in 2014, well over double the 3,400 who immigrated to Israel in 2013 and triple the 1,900 who did so in 2012. Over the past year, JAFI has doubled the size of its delegation in France and of its French-speaking staff in Jerusalem in order to accommodate the heightened interest in aliyah.
Mission participants returned to the U.S. with information and impressions, but few solutions for a frightening increase in anti-Jewish rhetoric and attacks.
“French citizens with whom we spoke discussed the explosion of antisemitism on the European continent, fed by the large number of Muslims who have immigrated, many of whom have not been assimilated into the countries where they have relocated, and some of whom have been radicalized in Syria, Yemen and Iraq,” says Perry. “They were profoundly concerned by the growing strength of the right-wing parties such as Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France, and they felt the vitriol expressed on the streets and in riots during the past summer’s Operation Protective Edge to be deeply traumatizing.
“High school students and their families with whom we met for an afternoon in Sarcelles, where the Jewish Sephardi population of 15,000 live largely in public housing, are still disturbed by the shouts of ‘Kill the Jews’ that they heard in the streets. Blockaded in their synagogues, with young men rioting, they feared for their lives. These families left Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco after the Six Day War in 1967 or following the Yom Kippur War of 1973. They already left their homes once, concerned with existential threats. They are Zionists and most have family in Israel. Now they wonder if they are safe in France. Now they contemplate if they should make aliyah and start anew in a country where they don’t speak the language and where the social-benefit basket is not nearly as good as in France. There is high anxiety and talk of a mass exodus, even while these families pridefully acknowledge that they are French and love France.”
While JAFI is focusing on getting more Jews to Israel, JFNA is putting resources into strengthening Jewish communities where they are. JFNA executive vice president Mark Gurvis returned from the JFNA mission to report that the organization would be working to address security issues facing the Jewish community in France, as well as in the rest of Europe and in North America. He wrote in a post-mission op-ed for JNS.org on Feb. 11, “The creation of the Jewish Federations’
Secure Community Network represents our system’s serious shift of attention and resources to this priority. Our assistance through the France Emergency Fund will help French Jews take their next steps; their community will ultimately bear the long-term responsibility.”
Linda Russ describes the 48-hour JFNA visit as “all at once disconcerting, enlightening and inspiring.”
“At the magnificent and historic Grand Synagogue of Paris, built by the Rothschild family in 1874, we entered past three combat-ready French soldiers stationed outside,” she says. “At the Lucien Hirsch School, the oldest Jewish day school in Europe with 1,000 students, we entered past heavily-armed soldiers who flank the front door, saw more soldiers stationed inside, and, we were told, they sleep in the school at night to protect the building. The juxtaposition of security and insecurity, of a long history of Jewish life in France and new uncertainty about the future, were the leitmotifs of our visit.”
Russ and the group learned from their hosts that what defines present-day Europe is the high level of violence against Jews.
“Antisemitic actions take a form that is shocking to all,” she says. “French government officials clearly define the threat – radical Islam – and they particularly emphasize their concern over its effort to delegitimize Israel through the BDS [boycott, divestment, sanction] movement, which officials say is fueling antisemitism among both Muslims and non-Muslims.”
In fact, a day after holding a memorial service at the now-shuttered Hyper Cacher market where four Jewish men were murdered last month, the group learned that a vandal had burned an Israeli flag at the site and was immediately arrested.
Many Jewish families are taking their children out of public schools and enrolling them in either Jewish schools or non-Jewish private schools – including Christian schools – which is also a costly proposition, Russ says. “Many Jews remove their kippot when walking outside and others downplay their Jewish identity and connection to the community by staying away completely. Jewish leaders in Paris and throughout France face challenges in financing their intense security needs now, in assisting Jews in relocating to safer places, in building new Jewish leadership as many depart to live in Israel and elsewhere.”
Russ says that she was told many times during the mission, “What happens to the Jews of France, happens to France.”
“Indeed, the French Jewish community is grateful to the government for dispatching thousands of soldiers to protect the 600 Jewish institutions throughout the country immediately after the Charlie Hebdo murders,” she says. “But that protection will not be provided forever, and there is great worry in the Jewish community about what it will do when the soldiers no longer stand guard.”
CAP: Among the group on the Jewish Agency mission to France were Sydney Perry (standing, second from right) and Caryl Kligfeld (standing, fourth from left).