Algerian Born Rabbi Elected New Chief Rabbi of France

Rabbi Rene Sirat, a 50-year-old Algerian-born Jewish educator and professor of Oriental languages was elected France’s new Chief Rabbi yesterday, to succeed 85-year-old Chief Rabbi Jacob Kaplan who will retire at the end of this year.

Sirat is the first Sephardic Jew of North African origin to become Chief Rabbi and his election attests to the growing influence of Jews from North Africa who now comprise about 50 percent of the 750,000-strong Jewish community in France. His victory was something of a surprise as his opponent, Chief Rabbi Max Warscbawski of Strasbourg, was supported by Chief Rabbi Kaplan. Sirat was elected by the General Assembly of the Jewish Consistory plus delegates representing French rabbis and the eastern departments of France where the country’s oldest Jewish communities reside.

TURNING POINT FOR FRENCH JEWRY

He was elected Chief Rabbi for a term of seven years whereas Kaplan, who was elected in 1955, was designated Chief Rabbi for life. But the selection of Sirat as the spiritual leader of French Jewry marked a turning point in other ways in the history of this Jewish community.

Born in Bone (now Annaba), Algeria, he came to France as a youth in 1948 and, after his ordination, served as rabbi in the town of Clermont-Ferrand in central France and in the city of Toulouse in southwestern France. But he gave up the pulpit 20 years ago to pursue a career in education. He was a pioneer in the teaching of Hebrew in France and headed the French Jewish school system.

Above all, Rabbi Sirat is noted as an intellectual. He received his Ph.D from the University of Strasbourg in 1965 and is a professor at the School of Oriental Languages in Paris.

FACES DIVIDED COMMUNITY

His predecessor has been called the “conscience and spokesman” of the Jewish community in France. In undertaking that role, the new Chief Rabbi faces a community that has become sharply divided in recent years between traditionalists and a younger generation of militants who believe that French Jewry must exert its political influence in matters of Jewish concern, particularly those relating to France’s Middle East policies.

That situation was aggravated recently by President Valery Giscard d’Estaing’s statements favoring self-determination for the Palestinian people, a term widely interpreted as meaning a Palestinian state. The traditionalists, represented by Rabbi Kaplan and the Rothschild family which heads the major Jewish organizations in France, have been loath to exert political pressure because, among other things, they fear it could faster anti-Semitism.

The militants, especially their more radical fringe, have been urging French Jewry to “punish” Giscard by voting against him in the Presidential elections next year.

Sirat is not identified with either the traditionalists, who in fact represent the French Jewish establishment, or the militants, but he is expected to adopt policies different from those of Rabbi Kaplan. His first task as Chief Rabbi will be to try to heal the rift before deciding what course to adopt with regard to France’s Middle East policies.

His overriding concern is to reinforce Jewish identity in France through Jewish education. He believes the best way to protect Judaism in France is to strengthen Jewish education.

NEXT STORY