U.S. Jewish leaders go on solidarity mission to France
By Stacey Dresner
PARIS – When Susan Weiss Firestone, president of the Jewish Federation of Western Mass., and 42 other Jewish leaders went on the Jewish Federation of North America’s (JFNA) Solidarity Mission to Paris earlier this month, some went thinking that the majority of French Jews were ready to flee the country.
“Many of us came with preconceived notions that things are really getting tough there and that the Jews should go to Israel or just go somewhere. But we learned a lot about the community,” Firestone said. “Some people will leave, but others don’t want to leave. They feel, and rightly so, that they should be able to feel safe in their own homes.”
The whirlwind, two-day mission – from Feb. 8 -10 – was in response to the Jan. 7 attack by Islamist terrorists on the offices of the magazine Charlie Hebdo and the subsequent attack on Jan. 9 on the Hyper Cacher kosher market in which 15 hostages were taken and four Jewish men were killed.
The mission, attended by both lay leaders and Jewish communal professionals from 18 different Jewish communities, allowed the participants to meet members of the Jewish community in France and government officials. They met with both the U.S. and Israeli ambassadors to France, and talked with French authorities about security in the Jewish community.
There are 550,000 Jews in France, making it the second largest Jewish diaspora community, behind the United States. “It is a very large and significant community,” Firestone said.
There are 700 Jewish organizations in France, including synagogues, day schools, community centers, and nursing homes. There are 32,000 children who attend Jewish day schools.
“It is a very Zionist community. They love their French life and their Jewish life. They say that there are more kosher restaurants there than in New York or Tel Aviv. So it is a very rich life they have created. This is a community that has been there for a thousand years – they noted to us that Rashi was from France. It is a very well organized, sophisticated and deeply connected Jewish community. The people are very proud to be French and they are proud to be Jewish.”
The mission’s first stop upon arriving on Sunday morning was lunch at the Grand Synagogue of Paris or the Synagogue de la Victoire, the temple that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited just weeks earlier. They met with Rabbi Moshe Sebbag and sang the prayer for Israel together. They also met with the president of the synagogue, Jacques Canet, and attended a security briefing with Tali Ochayon, a representative of the Protective Service of the Jewish Community.
Firestone and the others learned that since the murders at the Hyper Cacher market, there have been 10,000 French troops guarding the country’s 700 Jewish institutions, including Ecole Lucien de Hirsh, the day school that the mission participants later visited.
“There are troops outside the day school 24 hours a day, guarding the entrance and even sleeping there overnight,” Firestone said. “It makes them feel safe, but also kind of traumatizes the kids. They know the French government can’t continue this indefinitely, so they are going to have to figure out their own security.”
The group also went to a Massa aliyah fair, sponsored by the Jewish Agency, a recipient of Federation campaign dollars. The fair offered opportunities for medium- and long-term programs in Israel for young people.
“There were people lined out the door,” Firestone said. “There were 8,000 people there, three times as many people as there normally would be.”
The group also made a stop at the Hyper Cacher and said Kaddish for those murdered during last month’s terrorist attack. The store was closed and fenced in.
“It is not open anymore. I think the owner wants to make aliyah, so he didn’t even reopen,” Firestone said. “There are guards there and Israeli flags and memorials. We went there and had a brief ceremony, said Kaddish and left a wreath there…It is as if people went to the Crown to get food for Shabbat and got killed. It is just unimaginable.”
The group later had dinner at their hotel with members of the Jewish community, including representatives of the Consistoire, or religious congregations; the Crif, the umbrella organization of 60 Jewish organizations; and the Fondes de Juif Unifie, the Jewish Federation of France with 300 affiliates.
They learned that 2,500 is the average number of French Jews who annually make aliyah to Israel. Last year 7,500 made aliyah, and this year they are estimating that 10,000 will make aliyah.
“But there are 550,000 Jews in France. They aren’t all going to leave,” Firestone said. “We now see that this a very proud French and proud Jewish community that wants to be in charge of their own future and stay. The ones who want to leave and go to Israel will be welcomed with open arms, and those who want to stay will need to come up with strategies.”
One strategy is raising funds for increased and continuous security for Jewish institutions.
Another is to move some members of the Jewish community in Paris out of neighborhoods where there is increased anti-Semitism and violence.
“Although it is a fairly well-to-do community in general, there are some Jews who are economically disadvantaged and live in less desirable neighborhoods. In those neighborhoods, the people are being bullied and attacked… It is at the point where if a mother sends her child down to the corner market to pick up something and they have a bag from a kosher market or are wearing a kippah, they can get beaten up.”
To move people from these Paris neighborhoods will require funding so that the Fonde de Juif Unifie can subsidize higher rents. Firestone said that the plan is for the Fonde to foot around 80 percent of the bill, but Jewish Federations of North America has opened a mailbox so that people can contribute money to help with both the relocations and with additional security.
One of the most important parts of the mission, Firestone said, was their visit to the French Prime Minister’s office to meet with Gilles Clavreul, Interministerial Delegate for the Fight against Racism and Anti-Semitism.
“He really told us that the French government is very concerned about the French Jewish community,” she said.
In fact, after the terrorist attack in January, Prime Minister Manuel Valls made an impassioned speech against anti-Semitism to the French Parliament.
“How can we accept that people are killed because they are Jewish?” Valls said. “How is it that in some schools, we cannot teach about the Holocaust? This is a new anti-Semitism, born on the Internet, which advocates hatred of Jews and the loathing of the State of Israel. When the Jews of France are attacked, all of France is attacked, and so is the universal consciousness.”
But acts of anti-Semitism continue to occur.
While the mission was in France, someone set fire to an Israeli flag at the Hyper Cacher market memorial on fire. Earlier this week, 300 Jewish tombstones were vandalized in a cemetery in Eastern France.
While these events continue to raise concerns, Firestone said she thought that the French Jewish community was glad for the support shown by the members of the JFNA mission.
“Typically, I don’t think the American Jewish and the French Jewish communities have had close ties,” Firestone said. “So this is an opportunity to form a closer relationship. I think they were happy that we came and showed that support and solidarity.”
To contribute to the Jewish Federations of North America’s emergency fund for the French Jewish community, go to