NEEDED: Solidarity mission to French Jewry

It is always enriching to spend a summer Shabbat at The Hampton Synagogue, a unique focal point of international Jewish lay and professional leadership. This past Saturday night, I had the pleasure of meeting Gidi Grinstein, Founder & President of Israel’s Reut Institute, who discussed his model of “flexigidity” as a description of Jewish survival.

On one hand, the Jewish people have always focused on Zion, but also adapted to countries and societies all over the world. There has always been a focus on Hebrew and Hebrew text in some form, but it has always gone along with local languages, culture, and legal traditions. As a result, we have always succeeded in finding new ways to retain the most important things. As he noted, the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, might be seen as an ultra-conservative, yet in many ways he was a dynamic innovator. In fact, the movement he led was itself among the great Jewish innovations of the last three centuries.

Grinstein went on to assert that the Jewish community thrives and adapts because of the tension between global unity and diversity. Like any ecosystem or computer network, there are active and more passive forces pushing and pulling against each other, creating both innovation and adaptations to threats and conditions that then spread across the network for the benefit of everyone. One of the keys to promoting “flexigidity” in the future is preserving a diversity of strong communities that ensure the resilience of the entire network.

Grinstein’s presentation was particularly thought-provoking because of a Friday night dialogue I attended featuring Alan Gil, CEO of the Joint Distribution Committee. Gil was asked by Rabbi Marc Schneier about the state of the French Jewish community, particularly in light of the highly-publicized anti-Semitic riots that recently took place in Paris and the dramatically increased aliya numbers that have been reported. Gil, in his response, tried to contextualize the statistics against the background of a fully realized, dynamic Jewish community about 500,000 strong, the largest of any country in Europe. However many Jews leave, he felt, the French Jewish community is a fact, despite alarmist magazine covers and even dire warnings by its own leaders.

Remarkably, to some Jews it is an unwelcome fact. They wonder why French Jews don’t move en masse to the relative safety of Israel. They openly call for the organized dissolution of European Jewry in the face of rising anti-Semitism that is all too often spilling over into shocking violence. However, the reality of the French Jewish community is actually a very good thing. It is an important node in the Jewish communal network, fully engaged in a liberal democracy, well-connected to its own national government as well as other Jewish communities and political leaders across the European Union. In its complicated, often fraught interactions with the largest Muslim population in Europe, it will teach us many important lessons about coexistence under difficult circumstances. In a global community where diversity and adaptability drive our continued survival, French Jewry is too important to abandon, even if we might want to.

In the meantime, though, it is clearly a community that is under fire and in need of help. In the most recent demonstrations, Jewish-owned shops and synagogues were attacked and vandalized with a brazenness that evoked images of Kristallnacht. There is no doubt that a great deal of property was destroyed, and that ongoing security concerns may well have a severe impact on people’s livelihoods for months to come. Foreign ministers from Germany, France and Italy have issued a joint statement condemning the rise in anti-Semitic protests and violence and vowed to combat hostility against Jewish people, and French President Francois Hollande has met jointly with Jewish and Muslim community leaders, but tensions remain at the boiling point. The costs of the heightened security concerns, both in terms of money and morale, have yet to be fully realized but will surely be steep.

It is past time, then, for the international Jewish community to stand in material support of one of its most important and embattled outposts. Just as we make special efforts to visit Israel and buy Israeli products – to give aid both to Israel’s morale and economy –  we should be doing the same for our French brethren. Organizations and communities should be planning solidarity missions to demonstrate to French Jews that they are not alone. Vendor fairs and coordinated efforts should be promoting opportunities to help Jews – both in Israel and in the Diaspora – support those in Paris or Marseille for whom conducting business may be just as difficult and dangerous as it is for those in Sderot or Be’er Sheva.

Obviously, the State of Israel should be taking the lead in aiding the French Jewish community in the unique ways that it can, in particular by helping those who wish to come on aliya and engaging in diplomatic advocacy to the extent possible. However, it is the responsibility of every other node in the Jewish communal network to do what it can to send material aid and support to French Jews. Ultimately, their strength is our strength, and the stronger the Diaspora remains, the stronger Israel – both the State and the people – will be. I am told Paris is beautiful this time of year.

About the Author
Avraham Bronstein is rabbi of The Hampton Synagogue in Westhampton Beach, NY.
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