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Staying in Paris

Three weeks after the attacks: The answer to terrorism is remaining and choosing to be 'a better person tomorrow'

The night of the bloody terrorist attacks in France, I was at my parents’ for Shabbat dinner. Their home is just one block from the Bataclan concert venue in Boulevard Voltaire, the site of the most deadly attack. There, nearly 100 people lost their lives when they were shot by black-clad gunmen wielding AK-47s and wearing suicide vests.

I go to my parents’ home for dinner nearly every week. That Friday night, we started earlier than usual because my mom had phoned to let me know that my dad had finished work early. We love our time together and on most weeks I stay and chat until nearly 10 p.m. But this week was different. A friend of mine was visiting and was staying at one of his friend’s homes across town. So I left to go meet up with him and within five minutes of my leaving the neighborhood, the chaos began.

Nearly three weeks have passed. The world is now familiar with the shocking details of what took place on that deadly November night in Paris.

Looking back, I wonder what to make of such a series of attacks on my home. How do I explain the unique and maddening aspect of this larger attack on Paris and on the world. What can we learn?

First, the power of the human touch. That evening, when the attacks happened, I was in the house in which my friend was staying. I didn’t know the owner, but my home is also near the Bataclan, so I couldn’t leave. He opened his door to me with grace and an embrace and gave me a place to unpack the chaos of the evening – until nearly 5:30 a.m.

By the time I arrived home and news of the attacks had spread, my inbox was full of messages from colleagues from around the world – mostly friends I had met through ROI Community. Even Lynn Schusterman sent a note to the Paris cohort. There was a sense of unity that touched me in a deep place and helped me to make it through those first few days. Thanks to the email that was sent to the French cohort, I connected with a fellow ROIer in Paris and made a new friend.

Second, we cannot live in fear, despite the terrifying reality. What struck me was the instant questioning by several Jewish friends in and outside of France: “When are you going to make aliyah?” The answer is that, though I love Israel, I am not going to move to Israel right now. I believe that one makes aliyah because they love Israel and want to live in Israel, not because they want to run away. A secondary reason for staying put is the fact that having Jews in the Diaspora is important for ensuring that Israel stays strong.

The answer to terrorism is life itself; we must not change our daily routines. Terrorism cannot lead to the shutdown of a society or community. Terrorism compels us to fight back by living in a proud, defiant and robust way. The threats against us compel us to become stronger in the face of adversity.

I am not out of touch with reality. Being a Jew in Europe is more challenging today than it was a decade ago, but I am not going to leave. I am going to do my part to make our community stronger, by staying active in Moishe House and volunteering to take part in hands-on tikkun olam projects. I am focused on strengthening the future of Jewish life in Europe. I am going to stay to celebrate many Shabbatot with my friends, family and colleagues and maybe even to raise my own family here.

Despite what so many have been alleging, Jewish life in Europe is not over.

Yet, after all that has transpired, I have a new and more profound appreciation for the State of Israel and the feeling of security it offers every Jew. So while I will not move to the Holy Land right now, I will do my part to strengthen Israel.

The extremists that carried out the Paris attacks have no respect for human life. They are members of a global cult of death. The antithesis is therefore life. Locally. Where they seek to eradicate it.

We learn from Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, “If you are not a better person tomorrow than you are today, what need have you for a tomorrow?”

I plan to need tomorrow exactly where I am right now.

About the Author
Benjamin Zagzag, a young Jewish activist, was born and raised in Paris. He has worked with the French Jewish Students Union and served as both President and Vice President of the European Union of Jewish Students. He also was a Legacy Heritage Fellow at the European Jewish Congress in Paris. Currently he works as a fixer for ABC News and at the Shoah Museum. He is a member of the ROI Community.