On either side of the Talmud Bavli text, appear French Jews — Rashi in one column and, in the opposite, Baalei Hatosafot. Contemporary French Jewry may not be as towering in scholarship as it once was, but there are an estimated 1400 French-born married men engaged in full-time scholarship in Israel alone. Besides, in sheer numbers, this is the third largest Jewish community in the world, after the USA and Israel, with anywhere between 575,000 and 620,000 Jews in France today[1]. Paris dominates[2], with 56% of all Jews living in Paris and its regions (350,000), making it the largest Jewish city outside of Israel and America. Another eight cities account for most of the remaining 44%. They include Marseilles – which with 70,000 Jews, is in the top ten cities outside of America and Israel[3]. Lyons (25,000), Toulouse (23,000), Nice (20,000), Strasbourg (16,000), Grenoble (8,000), Metz, and Nancy (4,000) all have very viable populations.[4]

Once upon a time, France was an Ashkenazi heartland. This is no more. In the 1950s and 1960s, 300,000 Jews from North Africa arrived – mainly from Morocco and Tunisia but also from Libya and Egypt. In the meantime, 90,000 of the original population of 340,000[5] were killed by the Nazis. Many thousands others were repatriated to their Eastern European homelands. Immigration and intermarriage topped off the list, leading to situation where, today, Sephardic Jews now comprise 60% of the French Jewish community. Since they are much more traditional, Sephardic Jews are a far more dominant presence than their numbers convey. One has to search high and low to find a synagogue that even has a single Nusach Ashkenaz siddur!

Sephardic Jews have taken over all the major organizations except for the CRIF (Conseil Representatif des Institutions juives de France), which until now has been led by French Jewry’s Ashkenazic elitist society[6]. Pierre Besnainou, a French-Tunisian is now the head of the FSJU (Fonds Social Juif Unifie – Unified Jewish Social Fund )[7]. He is also the co-president of the equivalent of the UJA of France – the Appel Unifie Jif de France (the annual fundraising arm for both Israel and local causes) together with David de Rothschild. The Consistoire, the umbrella body for synagogues established by Napoleon, is headed by Dr. Mergi, also a Sephardi. Even the CRIF nearly changed to Sephardic hands. Meyer Habib, a religious Sephardic Jew of Tunisian descent made an almost successful bid for the CRIF presidency. Habib lost to Roger Cukierman, a 77-year-old banker and former CRIF president — and an Ashkenazic Jew (Habib subsequently went on to be a member of the French parliament).

It was the Sephardim who were responsible for a religious awakening among French Jews. Jean Paul Amouelle built a chain of Otzar HaTorah schools, the most religious of the original school systems appealing to the traditional[8]. In a 2009 survey of French Jews, one-third of respondents said they were more religiously observant than their parents. This is probably the highest such response in the world.

The result of all of this is a Jewry, 56% of which defines itself as either Orthodox or traditionalist, 29% of whom are non-observant, and 15% of whom are reformed or liberal[9]. But behind those figures lay a less rosy picture. Only 40% of the claimed Orthodox and traditional are members of a synagogue. Fully 30% of eligible Jews are living with a non-Jewish partner (not all married) and this percentage keeps growing. It is 40% for the 18-29 groups. For the non-married couples, the rate is 83%. There is a more subtle trend here, an emerging tendency for Jews to become part of non-Jewish society in France. And therefore it makes sense that the more educated the population, the greater their rate of intermarriage. (It goes up from 30% to 41% among the population holding a bachelors degree.). French Sephardic Jews are still quite distinct culturally from French non-Jews. In fact, a high percentage of intermarriages don’t work[10]. But the aspirations of the French are rapidly in the direction of intermarriage. Whereas in America, someone who intermarries is usually at the lowest rung of Jewish identity, French Jews may actually consider themselves Shabbat observant (in the traditional sense) and still not be safe from intermarriage! We know in America that intermarriage sky-rocketed when it lost its stigma. France has not yet hit that point, but it is moving fast towards it. 36% of the people questioned would be against non-Jewish marriage, 44% would be reluctant to do it themselves but would accept it. 19% would find it normal. And this, in a country where, 86% of Jews consider it important to give a Jewish education to their kids![11]

So, as with the rest of the world, “traditionalism” as an approach to Judaism lacks a future. Jews are shifting their identity, but a growing minority are engaged in a noticeable religious revival. These Baalei Teshuva are increasingly affiliating with synagogues and kiruv centers which are outside the framework of the Consistoire. The Consistoire was organized by Napoleon Bonaparte and hasn’t changed much since then. Like all top-down systems it has been challenged to remain relevant. This has meant an increasing ‘informal sector’ mainly comprised of the 7% of the population that is Chareidi, most of them Baalei Teshuva to begin with.

Recently, two major things happened in France that significantly upset the equilibrium of French Jewry. The first was the terrorist attack in Toulouse, when people realized that anti-Semitism in France is no longer just a nuisance or even dangerous, it was actually murderous.

Edmund Fleg, the famous French-Jewish author, stated in 1945 that now that the Germans are gone, “France is in the process of again becoming what she always has been since the French Revolution, the least anti-Semitic country in Europe.” Pierre Poujade’s right-wing anti-Semitism (the Jews as economic parasites), never gained traction beyond his brief victory of 50 seats in the national assembly in 1956. Many Jews in the 1950s and the 1960s achieved prominence in different areas as they had done before and a Jew, Pierre Medes-France, became premier in 1954. France was then Israel’s greatest supporter and the two countries fought the Sinai-Suez War together in 1956.

Today, the picture is very different. A new anti-Semitism led the French community out of its hush-hush mode into speaking more openly about the phenomenon. It took the government a little longer to break its silence. However, in February 2013, several studies detailing the huge anti-Semitism in France made world headlines. The taboo was broken. Finally, it was recognized that the Jews were subjected to attacks, insults, pushing, and sometimes even worse. Moreover, the Toulouse attack had encouraged more, not less, hatred of the Jews.
Moslem anti-Semitism is only one of four types of Jew hatred in France today. On the far right, 15% of the population engages in traditional European anti-Semitism (the Jews as a financial conspiracy and the like). On the far left, an even larger group have become virulent haters of Israel as oppressors of the Palestinians. By proxy, the pro-Zionist Jews of France are also guilty. In the middle, lie most Frenchmen, not willing to condescend to active anti-Semitism, but not inclined to do too much about it either. (It should be noted that a lot of French non-Jews don’t like each other either. 74% feel that Islam is an intolerant religion incompatible with republican values (Le Monde poll). During last year’s presidential election, Nicolas Sarkozy played the immigrant card. Left hates right and right hates left and a good number on both sides hate the Jews.

Are the Jews leaving in response to anti-Semitism? Sure they are, from one side of Paris to another – to better areas unaffordable for most Moslems. They began to leave Sarcelle and go to the 19th Quarter . When the Arabs started moving into the 19th Quarter, they began to move to the 16th or 17th Quarter or one of the better outlying areas like Creteilles. But then the economy struck. In 2013, the French economy has actually been contracting[12], a phenomenon that France hasn’t experienced since the 2nd World War. The economic downturn limited the traditional response to anti-Semitism. Those left behind in the increasingly Moslemised areas no longer have the money to move to the more expensive areas. It is more viable to emigrate. Some are moving to London (where recently three French synagogues were started), to New York and to Miami, but most emigrants head for Israel.

French Jews have always been very Zionistic. Given the choice, more than half of adolescents and students surveyed since 1967 say that they would prefer to have been born as Israeli, while nearly 40% of adults have this preference.[13] But, being Zionistic and making aliyah are two different things. The annual aliyah figures averaged only about 1,000 most years. Now however, we are seeing a constant and sustained rise. In 2012, 1,900 made aliyah; in 2013, it is expected to pass the 2,500 mark[14]. But the change cannot be simply measured by the numbers who actually move. Amongst French Jewry, there is now an environment of talking and preparing to leave by those who are not yet moving. French Jews are hedging their bets. They are buying second homes in Israel. There are significantly more youth going on MASA (five-month to one-year study programs in Israel) and other programs to familiarize themselves more with Israel. The Jewish Agency’s weekly Aliyah night has doubled its numbers[15].

In the meantime, most French Jews are staying put. And that leaves a lot of challenges. Outreach amongst students has grown tremendously in recent years, and there are hundreds of students going to yeshiva for short periods every year. Other areas are not doing so well. Jewish day schools enrollment is static, despite the enormous opportunity to recruit students from government schools full of hostile non-Jewish students. (There are cases of Jewish primary schools being over-subscribed, but high schools generally have significant enrollment space.) There are areas of Paris with significant Jewish populations that have nothing more than an uninviting Consistoire synagogue to service them. Although the Consistoire’s Sunday Cheider system is vastly improved, it has zero programming beyond the age of thirteen – and that is all the Jewish education the two thirds of Jewish children not in day schools are going to get. See what we have here – a microcosm of the world. The core gets stronger as baalei teshuva flock in, and the periphery gets weaker.

History has shown us that the fact that a Jewish community has a history does not guarantee it a future. Iraqi Jewry had 2,000 years behind them, but that all came crashing down. The Jewish communities of Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, Germany… and dozens of historic communities across Europe – all of these had ignominious ends. Eventually, all Jews will come back to Israel. Is God now busy closing down the galut? Will France – that once glorious place of liberty, equality and fraternity (ok, let’s just overlook Robespierre’s terror and a few other things) – be the next country to make a Jewish presence a near impossibility? The unlikely is already happening; the unthinkable may not be far away.



[1] One estimate puts the figures as low as 500,000.

[2] This reflects the global trend of increasing concentration of Jews in the major cities of each country.

[3] The others are Moscow, Toronto, Buenos Aires, London, Budapest, St. Petersburg, Sao Paulo, Kiev and Montreal in that order.

[4] In addition there are a dozen communities, each with some 2,000 Jews, scattered throughout the country. Altogether there are approximately 230 Jewish communities in France.

[5] According to Howard Sachar, Diaspora, by 1940, France’s 340,000 comprised 150,000 native born, 50,000 refugees from Nazi-dominated Central Europe, 35,000 refugees from Holland and Belgium, and 110,000 Eastern European immigrants.

[6] The CRIF, French Jewry’s political umbrella organization representing 72 major French Jewish organizations, was born in 1944 during the resistance to the Nazi occupation.

[7] Formerly, he headed the European Jewish Congress.

[8] The other two large systems are the Alliance and the Ort schools.

[9] Until recently, all French synagogues were officially orthodox under the Consistoire. (The first Liberal (Conservative) congregation was only established some ten years ago.

[10] 20% of mixed marriages end in divorce as opposed to 8% of in-marriages.

[11] Even though only 30% of children and teenagers are actually going to Jewish schools. A good deal of the rest at least send their kids to Cheider – the Consistoire’s system of Sunday schools up until Bar Mitzvah.

[12] The government pared its economic growth forecast for the year to 0.1%, but most feel that this is optimistic. The statistical office Insee forecast a 0.1 percent contraction for 2013. Unemployment is at a 16-year high. France missed its deficit reduction target to 3% of its GNP last year (it was 4.8%), and consumer spending is contracting. France is influenced by the euro-zone economy which has contracted for six quarters in a row.

[13] FSJU survey.

[14] As per my conversation with Ariel Kandel, head of the Jewish Agency in Paris.

[15] As per my conversation with Ariel Kandel, head of the Jewish Agency in Paris.

Photo Credit: rubyblossom

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