“A fire is burning.” This Vladimir (Ze’ev) Jabotinsky declared to European Jewry in the 1930s. Too few heeded his cry. As I leave Paris after a solidarity mission following terrorist attacks at Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Cacher, I offer a similar cry.
French prime minister Manuel Valls proclaimed, “France without Jews is not France,” meaning: you must stay; you belong here. But virtually every French Jew I spoke to expressed fear about being—remaining—in France. Their fear is palpable, and has prompted them to consider leaving. Even two leaders of CRIF (translated as the Representative Council of French Jewish Institutions, which represents all of French Jewry) with whom we met separately told us some of their children and their families moved to Israel – while others are contemplating similar aliyah. CRIF leaders work to encourage French Jewry to stay in France; that some of their children choose to live in Israel speaks volumes.
During the solidarity mission I visited the legendary Nazi hunter Beate Klarsfeld, who lives in Paris with her husband, Serge. Years back, Beate and I joined in protests around the world against the Austrian president Kurt Waldheim—an ex-Nazi. With her customary candor, Beate told me, “If this past week was only about terrorism against Jews, there would be little outcry here. After Jews were murdered in Toulouse a few years ago, there was hardly any protest. It’s only because the attack at Hyper Cacher was linked to Charlie Hebdo that millions marched in the street.”
I was not alone on this mission. Several young rabbis and students – voices of the future – took part as well. As a result we were able to fan out, connecting with a larger portion of the French Jewish community. Our basic message was the same: students telling students, rabbis telling rabbis and other Jewish communal leaders: We Are One With You.
To follow are a few textual “snapshots” of the past few days—captions to untaken photographs.
- NYU rabbi Yehuda Sarna and his students visiting local Orthodox and pluralistic schools, where Rabbi Sarna gives French schoolchildren cards written to them by their counterparts in New York. Later that evening, he presents to a full house at the NYU Paris campus a beautiful documentary on his deep friendship with the NYU imam in New York. To me this is a dream of what could be. In storms, people must keep dreaming.
- Adam Scheier—rabbi of Congregation Shaar Hashomayim in Montreal—visits two liberal rabbis. He was moved by the extraordinary camaraderie he felt with his colleagues.
- Rabba Sara Hurwitz, Dean of Yeshivat Maharat, teaches Torah to a home study group of women who warmly receive her. She expresses deep empathy as she comments on the term mi’kotzer ruach, the exhaustion felt by Jews in ancient Egypt. To this one participant asks: How does one overcome such exhaustion?
And a few snapshots of my own:
- We visit an early childhood center, where little children are brought into an open area—surrounded by fully armed French soldiers. A child’s innocence disturbed by a world gone crazy.
In fact, wherever you see soldiers in Paris these days, you pretty much know you’re near a site of Jewish education or worship. In one synagogue, soldiers use an outer room as a base to unload their gear and rest. Just 70 years after the Vichy government deported Jews, French soldiers are guarding Jews. How long that will continue, no one can know.
Addressing the Consistoire – the community organization of orthodox Jews who were in emergency session to discuss their security needs – I share with them news of a large New York rally on their behalf sponsored by the New York Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC). They seemed moved. One leader asks whether American Jews could help finance the private security French Jewry desperately needs to complement whatever protection the government offers.
And never will I forget the long conversation we had with an extraordinary man who had been intimately involved in the tahara (ritual purification) of the murdered. (It is customary to keep anonymous the names of those who perform this holiest of tasks.) A veteran of the Israeli army, and now a long-term resident of Paris, this strong but gentle soul needed someone to talk to. In telling his story he broke down.
“Those murdered in acts of anti-Semitism are considered kadosh,” he explained. “During the tahara, I felt closer to God than ever, like the Kohen Gadol (high priest) on Yom Kippur. One of the murdered, Yoav, was the son of the Chief Rabbi of Tunis.” (Yoav was killed as he heroically tried to grab the assassin’s weapon.) After the rabbi shared with Yoav’s father how he had meticulously performed the tahara, the father had embraced him, saying, “We will be brothers forever. I raised Yoav in life, and you cared for him in death.” From this interaction I was overcome, immobilized for hours.
In the midst of all the pain, French Jews expressed positive feelings about their government, especially its commitment to protect the Jewish community. This stands in stark contrast to other countries I have visited, like Argentina, Venezuela, and Turkey, where Jewish communities in need saw their governments as hostile. All the same, I think the French government’s strong criticism of Israel during the recent Gaza War has contributed to the vulnerability of French Jews. You can’t separate “Israel“ from “Jew.”
Indeed, the dangers facing French Jewry are great, some say insurmountable. “It’s not Tisha B’Av”—the day the Temple was destroyed—one leader tells me, “but we’re in the beginning of the three weeks”—meaning the weeks leading up to that date. There is concern that support for the terrorists goes beyond radical Islam. In recent days, French security traced 21,000 tweets declaring “Je suis Coulibaly.” (Coulibaly was the terrorist who attacked Hyper Cacher.) And there were news reports saying many Muslim students refused to participate in a national moment of silence commemorating the victims. Thomas Friedman of the New York Times got it right: the mass Unity Rally should have been held in a Muslim country.
For decades I’ve been deeply involved in the world of Jewish activism. And if someone had told me fifty years ago—when we cried out, “Free Soviet Jewry, Never Again!”—that world Jewry would be confronted with the problems it faces today, I would have said: Impossible. I feel heaviness, deep disappointment, in where we stand today, that we have not done better.
But, given the situation we have, we must do our part—such as helping French Jewry who wish to make aliyah, and lobbying Congress to smooth the process for French Jews emigrating to the States. For those who remain, the French government must hear loud and clear that they aren’t just dealing with the rights of 600,000 Jews living in France—they must also contend with the concerns of millions of Jews and people of moral conscience worldwide.
For me the deepest moment of the mission occurred as our group, wearing tallesim (prayer shawls), stood in prayer and song at the memorial set up in front of Hyper Cacher. We were notified that thousands were expected to come to recite tehillim (psalms)—and, indeed, thousands came. A young Sephardi Jew led evening services. And then, silence.
Moved, nearly overcome, with all my strength I called out, “We have come from America to tell you: you are not alone. We stand with you.” The crowd responded with a collective “Merci.”
Psalms were then recited, amongst them those we say on Friday night as the Shabbat enters. What a contrast – the devastation of Hyper Cacher before us, and the psalms of Shabbat, the day of peace, the day of love, within us.
May the Shabbat prevail.