Zionism in Action Encounters with Diaspora Jewry

Rabbi Moshe Edelmann, 37-year-old head of the World Zionist Organization’s department for cultural services to diaspora communities for the past three years, can recall many encounters with Jews all over the world. But he remembers best his visit shortly before the Yom Kippur War, to Bayonne, a small town in southwestern France bordering on the Pyrenees.

It was there that the Danish-born, youthful looking rabbi discovered the other diaspora, that of Jews living far from Jewish centers whose hunger for “Yiddishkeit” was rarely satisfied. In the town itself there are several hundred Jews, but thousands are scattered in the vicinity. Edelman went there to try and organize some form of community services.

Bayonne has a long Jewish history. Inside the old ghetto there is a synagogue and an old community building. The Jewish cemetery contains the gravestones of several generations of Jews. But what the Jewish community there lacked was services. They had difficulties recruiting a cantor for the High Holidays because few cantors had bothered to learn the special style of prayer of the Jews of Bayonne.

But Edelmann’s most memorable experience during that visit was not in Bayonne, but in a tiny village some 40 miles away. He was driven there by Ammar, the 25-year-old head of Bayonne’s community. He saw a group of people with their children standing outside of the local school. It was Wednesday and there were no regular classes in the village. Parents and children entered one of the classrooms at 1 p.m. and emerged at 5 p.m. after four hours of uninterrupted Judaic studies.

STILL IMPRESSED BY INCIDENT

Edelmann recalls a woman who came with her two daughters from a distant town just to give them those few hours of Judaic studies. “After the class she turned to me and said: In the place I live there are 12 Jewish families, perhaps you can do something for them?’” When Edelmann showed signs of doubt, she quickly added: “Even if you don’t organize anything, I shall continue coming here.”

Three years later Edelmann is still impressed by the incident. “Thanks to this woman,” he said, “redemption will come to Israel.” Edelmann supplied the community of Bayonne with candles for Chanukah, Megilot Esther for Purim and Hagadot for Passover. When the High Holidays came, there was no Jewish community in the area that did not have a cantor to conduct religious services. Later the WZO department sent an emissary. Rabbi Pinhas Deri of Marseilles, who is in charge of services for the entire southern region of France.

The Bayonne experience convinced Edelmann how important it was to keep continuous contacts with such distant communities. This indeed is the main function of his department. The department is making an effort to send emissaries overseas who can cope with the religious necessities of relatively remote communities. In addition to the objective difficulties of finding a suitable person, his wife too must be suitable for the task, considering that she too will be an address for appeals by the local community.

A relatively large network of rabbis is currently working in South America, but at least 21 communities are still waiting for their spiritual leaders to come from Israel.Edelmann’s department held several courses in Israel to train religious leaders to provide the communities with basic services such as shohatim, mohalim and sofrim.

DEPARTMENT’S MAJOR FUNCTIONS

Other major functions of the department are to supply the communities with religious articles which are hard to get in many parts of the world. On every holiday the department undertakes a special operation to send articles that will enable the Jews to celebrate the holiday properly, such as Passover Hagadot translated into the local language, the four kinds of fruit for Succoth. Chanukah candles, Megilot in several languages and shofars for the High Hilidays.

Many of the people who have received those parcels from Jerusalem said unless they had gotten the gifts, they could not have observed the holiday. In many of the synagogues the department arranged special activities for the younger generation to assure that they, too, will enjoy the religious services.

Other activities include publication of a Jewish calendar in several languages explaining the ceremonies of feast days and a shortened version of Shulchan Aruch and Birkat Hamazon.

Edelmann is confident that his department’s efforts are on target. “Wherever we arrive, we receive red-carpet treatment,” he said, adding. “The mission of the bureau is that as long as there are Jews in the diaspora we have to make sure that they remain Jewish.”

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