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January 20, 2015 7:06 pm

You Are Not Alone: Our Solidarity Mission to Paris

avatar by Avi Weiss

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited the Hyper Cacher kosher supermarket in Paris that was attacked on Friday by an Islamist terrorist. Photo: JJ Georges via Wikimedia Commons.

“A fire is burning,” Vladimir (Ze’ev) Jabotinsky declared to European Jewry during the 1930s. Too few heeded his cry.

As I left Paris after a solidarity mission following terrorist attacks at Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Cacher, I offered a similar cry.

While French Prime Minister Manuel Valls proclaimed, “France without Jews is not France,” virtually every French Jew I spoke to expressed fear. Their fear was palpable, a fear that has prompted them to consider leaving. Even the head and former head of CRIF (the official organization representing all of French Jewry) with whom we met separately, told us that some of their children and their families are living in Israel – while others are contemplating aliyah. Part of the job of these communal leaders is to encourage French Jewry to remain. The decision of their children 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 said, “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.”

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I was not alone on this mission. Several young rabbis and students – voices of the future – took part. 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. It was students telling students, rabbis, and other Jewish communal leaders: We Are One With You. Snapshots of these powerful moments will long remain:

  • Yehuda Sarna, rabbi of NYU, leading his students as they visited local Orthodox and pluralistic schools. Rabbi Sarna read and gave French schoolchildren cards written by their counterparts in New York. Later that evening, he presented – to a full house at the NYU Paris campus – a beautiful documentary on his deep friendship with the NYU Imam in New York. A dream of what could be. In storms, people must keep dreaming.
  • Adam Scheier – rabbi of the 1,600 family Congregation Shaar Hashomayim in Montreal and graduate of YCT rabbinical school – visiting a reform rabbi. The rabbi told Adam that for the first time in many years, he donned a kippah as he joined in the mass unity march a few days earlier.
  • Rabba Sara Hurwitz, Dean of Yeshivat Maharat – the school that ordains Orthodox women – teaching Torah to a home study group of women who warmly received her. She expressed deep empathy as she commented on a term from last week’s Biblical portion – mi’kotzer ruach – the exhaustion felt by Jews in ancient Egypt. How does one overcome such exhaustion, a participant asks?

I, too, experienced moments I’ll never forget:

  • When we visited an early childhood center, little children were brought into an open area, surrounded by fully armed French soldiers. A child’s innocence disturbed by a world gone crazy.
  • Wherever you see soldiers in Paris these days, you pretty much know you’re near a synagogue or Jewish school. In one synagogue, soldiers used 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 continues…who knows?
  • Addressing the Consistoire – the community organization of orthodox Jews who were in emergency session to discuss their security needs – I shared 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 approached me and asked 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 was intimately involved in the tahara (ritual purification) of the murdered. (He remains anonymous as it is customary not to publicize 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 (holy),” 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 was Yoav, the son of the Chief Rabbi of Tunis.” (It was Yoav who was killed as he heroically tried to grab the assassin’s weapon.) Sharing with Yoav’s father how he had meticulously performed the tahara, the rabbi embraced him and said, “We will be brothers forever. I raised Yoav in life, and you cared for him in death.” From this interaction I was emotionally 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 ssee 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 Jewish vulnerability in France. 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” (the terrorist who attacked Hyper Cacher). And in some suburbs, many people 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 50 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 that we’ve not done better.

But, given the situation we have, we must dig in and do our part to help French Jewry by pushing for aliyah, and lobbying Congress to smooth the process for French Jews wishing to emigrate to the United States. For those who remain, the French government must hear loud and clear that they are not only dealing with the rights of 600,000 Jews living in France – but 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 stood, wearing tallesim (prayer shawls), in prayer and song at the memorial set up in front of Hyper Cacher. We were notified that within the hour thousands were expected to come to recite tehillim (psalms). Throngs arrived. A young Sephardi Jew led evening services. And then, silence.

I was overcome by the moment. With all my strength I called out, “We have come from America to tell you: you are not alone. We stand with you.” Many in the crowd responded – “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.

Rabbi Avi Weiss is senior rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale – the Bayit, Bronx, NY. He is the founder of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and Yeshivat Maharat.

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