I am currently in the midst of processing four fascinating months studying in Paris at Sciences Po as part of my Masters in international affairs. In spite of an intense courseload, a significant portion of my time and energy was spent trying to learn as much as possible about the Jewish community in Paris.

France has the third largest Jewish population in the world, just behind the United States and Israel, and as such it is no surprise that the community is complicated and diverse in nearly every possible way. I would be lying were I to say that I left Paris with a clear sense of the community’s collective ethos, mindsets, and structures, though I did have a number of unforgettable Jewish experiences — from the vast, ornate sanctuary of the Grande Synagogue de Paris to the Israeli culturephiles hanging out in the foyer at Sciences Po. (I was also lucky enough to explore Jewish communities — their past and present — in Rome, Venice, and even Barcelona and Lisbon.)

Of course it is impossible to brush aside the reality of anti-Semitism in France — which thankfully for me was an invisible phenomenon — as the number of anti-Semitic incidents soared 91 percent in 2014 compared to 2013, according to the Conseil Représentatif des Institutions Juives de France. We must not stop condemning — in partnership with other faith communities and indeed all reasonable and peace-loving people — unacceptable attacks on human dignity such as the one that took place just weeks ago in Creteil, wherein three assailants broke into a young couple’s apartment, robbed them — declaring, “you Jews, you have money” — and then raped the 19-year-old female. These incidents shock the conscience of France and the international community. I could not help but keep this incident in mind when, one week later, I had lunch with a Parisian-born young woman who was preparing to move to Israel just days after our encounter. (She joins nearly 1% of the French Jewish population in making aliyah to the Jewish state in 2014.)

Yet the Jews of France will not let extremists erode or impede the realization of their rights and freedoms. The community I encountered was not one built on or fuelled by ominous data or fear mongering, but rather on an undeniable energy and zest for Judaism and a commitment to promote and protect shared French-Jewish values — Liberté, égalité, fraternité…and tikkun olam (repairing the world).

Falafel pour tous by “Paris Tel Aviv”

Leaving aside for the moment my numerous strudel sprees along the storied Rue des Rosiers in the Marais, my quest to explore Jewish life in Paris unsurprisingly began with the organizations serving Jewish students at and around SciencesPo. Many foreign exchange students suffer from FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) on cool events, so they join countless Facebook groups. I sure did. One day I saw an enthusiastic post from a student promoting a Falafel Party, whatever that was. When I arrived I was bewildered to find several dozen students squished in a tiny bar near Saint Michel clamouring to reach the buffet and construct their own perfect falafel pita — “what are those brown balls in the bucket?” one girl whispered to me.

“So, is this a Jewish type of thing?,” I asked a Franco-British lad with whom I was waiting in line. “Well — err — I’m Jewish, but most people here are not. We don’t really talk about religion at this kind of an event.” Right, it’s just falafel, I reminded myself. I later connected with the lead organizers — two Jews and an Arab, all Sciences Po students — who explained that the event was hosted by Paris Tel Aviv, a “Franco-Israeli cultural organization.” I was eager to help out, and although my time on exchange was limited, I was fortunate to meet a number of students passionate about introducing Sciences Po students — who are exposed to a significant amount of unbalanced, blanket criticism of Israel inside and outside of the classroom. Paris Tel Aviv also organized a successful “Shabbat Laïc” (yes, that is short form for laïcité, French secularism) and, most impressively, the group brings top students on a study trip to Israel so that these young people — seen as the future leaders of l’État — can develop through first-hand experiences their own opinions about Israel — a hotbed of innovation and a global centre for pluralism.

On matters of Jewish campus life and advocacy related to combating anti-Semitism, the highly structured Union des étudiants juifs de France (UEJF) takes the lead. Whereas my colleagues and I on the board of the former Canadian Federation of Jewish Students faced difficulties in cultivating our distinctly national voice as the representative body for Jewish students, the UEJF appears to have found itself a vocal and influential actor not only in enhancing Jewish communities on campus but also in using challenges such as growing anti-Semitism to advocate against hatred writ large, including its expression on the Internet. UEJF’s President, Sacha Reingewirtz, is frequently featured in national media alongside the French Jewish community’s more seasoned advocates. While it is unfortunate that the UEJF must dedicate considerable energy to reacting to highly disturbing incidents, it is at least heartening that the voices of Jewish students figure prominently in many pivotal debates.

Chag sameach! Shabbat Shalom! Santé!

This was my first time ever being away from home during the High Holy Days, so while I missed my family and community in Ottawa dearly, I was grateful to celebrate with many new friends throughout Paris. My Rosh Hashanah meals were particularly fascinating, as I jumped from Ashkenazi to Sephardic traditions, from Liberal to Orthodox environments, and from urban apartments overlooking the Eiffel Tower to the peaceful streets of Saint-Cyr (just next to Versailles), where I met the incredible family responsible for Limoud France. The following day at lunch — after no-frills, Polish-style services at the Synagogue de la rue de Montevideo — I met the founder of a JewPop. Does it get any cooler?

Well, yes it does when one considers the food: I had never before experienced the Sephardic Rosh Hashanah seder, in which special blessings are recited over an intriguing assortment of foods — dates, leeks, the head of a fish, beets, etc. — in order to mark the new year. After several weeks of settling into Paris and living with students from around the world, it was truly a joy to be amongst vibrant families with enduring French-Jewish identifies. Other highlights included being pelted with hard candies and dancing with the Five Books of Moses at the storied La Synagogue de la rue Vauquelin on Simchah Torah. I also had a number of Shabbat experiences throughout my time in Paris, the most memorable of which were at Le Beth ‘Habad des Etudiants (Chabad) located just beside Luxembourg Gardens. Parisian-born, twenty-something Rabbi Mendy Lachkar and his Italian wife Mushky, host highly enjoyable and intimate Shabbat dinners each week. Each time I went I met young professionals — plenty of newly minted lawyers! — and whereas most Parisians I encountered reverted to English, these folks actually encouraged me to converse in French, and I am most appreciative.

Yom Kippur à la Victoire

With my tallis hidden in a bright plastic bag from La Cure Gourmande, I boarded the RER B train for Chatalet station, enroute to my first Kol Nidre service away from my hometown. I transferred to the RER A, got off at Auber, passed the famous Palais Garnier opera house — where I spent many an evening enjoying Mozart operas and contemporary ballet for 10 Euros — and headed straight for Synagogue de la Victoire, France’s largest synagogue inaugurated in 1874. The shul can be intimidating, but I had attended services on a previous Shabbat and was warmly welcomed by the president, Jacques Canet, and Rabbi Moshe Sebbag.

As a Canadian in Paris, everything was always new and exciting — and I was a bit of a keener. So naturally I was at shul, raring to go, well before the advertised start time. I found a small group of expats and tourists in a similar situation. The synagogue itself was closed off when I arrived. Why, you ask? For an inspection by police dogs. The shul, after all, would be filled to capacity (1,800) by Ne’ila. Adding to security concerns, tonight’s service would be attended by Bernard Cazeneuve, the French Minister of Interior, who unfortunately has to spend a great deal of time addressing extremism and violent manifestations of discrimination, including against Jews. Also attending the first part of the service were Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo and Hassen Chalghoumi, Imam of Seine-Saint-Denis — a challenging neighbourhood outside Paris that has been designated as a “Priority Security Zone” — who has been an active participant in interfaith work.

Yet any underlying sense of political restlessness evaporated as soon as Adolphe Attia, the revered Cantor emeritus, took his place at the front podium and began the Kol Nidre prayer accompanied by a male choir and the current cantor, Aron Hayoun. Chazzan Attia’s voice is not particularly large, but it is so refined and focused that it not only projects throughout the vast sanctuary, but right into the hearts of congregants. Equally moving was the Ne’ila service the following evening when, as mentioned, what seemed like all the Jews in the vicinity filled every crevice of the sanctuary and stood united for the final moments of Judaism’s holiest day. Alas the spell was quickly broken when everyone retreated to the foyer and ended the fast with packages of Lu cookies that they had brought for themselves and their families. (Note to self for next time: bring snacks!)

Plus jamais

As the largest Jewish city outside the US and Israel — and as the capital of a country that lost 75,000 of its Jewish citizens from 1940 to 1944 — memory of the Shoah (Holocaust) is ascribed tremendous importance and national significance. Each year before Rosh Hashanah, the Fondation pour la Mémoire de la Shoah hosts a nationally-televised Cérémonie à la mémoire des déportés, which I attended at Synagogue de la Victoire. The ceremony was highly moving, with impassioned speeches from dignitaries and clergy mixed with survivor testimonies, children’s choirs singing about the strength of the Jewish people, and a long line of Jewish teenagers who are members of a local Zionist scouting movement.

Moreover, Paris’ Mémorial de la Shoah — located in the heart of the Marais, just a short stroll from the falafel, strudel, and Jewish books on Rue des Rosiers — is widely visited, with a remarkable range of educational programmes as well as reflective, bilingual, and informative exhibits. In addition to the permanent exhibition, I particularly appreciated an exhibit on the Rwandan genocide, a challenging subject in France given the relationship between Paris and the Habyarimana regime in Kigali. The Mémorial is evidently committed to providing a contemplative space in which the lessons of the Holocaust can be uncovered and internalized.

J’OSE! 

To be Jewish is to be part of a people that takes care of its and the world’s most vulnerable and in doing so serves as a light unto all nations. It is this trait that makes me especially proud to be Jewish and that has guided me in my work with organizations at home (such as the Tamir Foundation of Ottawa) and abroad (including the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee). Yet for one reason or another I had not heard of Œuvre de Secours aux Enfants (OSE; Organization to Save the Children) prior to my time in Paris. The Jewish humanitarian organization saved more than 5,000 children during the Second World War and currently operates a broad spectrum of programming to serve individuals — not just Jews — with disabilities and socioeconomic challenges, as well as youth on the verge of dropping out of school. I was pleased to attend a Shabbat dinner at OSE’s Paris headquarters in working-class Belleville.

The dinner was hosted by J’OSE, a group of young Jewish adults engaged in supporting the work of OSE. J’OSE also holds cultural gatherings and tikkun olam focused trips to India. The dinner featured a well-known local voice, that of Serge Moati — noted French-Tunisian-Jewish film director, author, and advisor to legendary former French President François Mitterrand. Despite the organizers’ efforts to shift the interactive discussion to other topics, no one seemed to want to leave alone the subject of Jean-Marie Le Pen, founder of the National Front party, and his anti-Semitism and that of his daughter Marine. (Moati recently released a documentary called Adieu Le Pen. I hesitate to offer commentary on the dynamics surrounding the rise of this socially conservative, extreme right-wing party with a history of anti-Semitism spanning over three decades.

Yet what I found fascinating — and distressing — was that while in Ottawa we bicker over which Canadian politicians are more staunch than others in their support of Jewish peoplehood and a Jewish state — my new friends in France have on their minds a political force with deeply worrisome implications for Jews and other minorities in France. (Although let me be clear — the current and recent governments in Paris have been resolute in their support of the Jewish community and in combating anti-Jewish attitudes and acts). In spite of the nervous tension, I found the atmosphere throughout the dinner to be friendly and the individuals with whom I spoke — and with whom I cleaned up the hall until past 1:00 AM — were passionate about building and sustaining Jewish community in France, including through some very cool social entrepreneurship initiatives like Nevatim.

À bientôt 

When I arrived in Paris in late August, I was warned, “Don’t let anyone know you are Jewish… Wear a baseball cap if you have a kippah underneath.” I arrived in Paris hoping that in spite of a sickening rise in anti-Semitic incidents, I would find pockets of energetic Jewish life. But I found so much more — a community that is diverse, engaged, dizzyingly structured (in a good way), and committed to being responsible and active French citizens as well as Zionists. Moreover, I left Paris — temporarily, I pray! — confident that the emerging generation of young Jewish adults in France is eager and prepared to shape the future of the world’s third largest kehilla.