Behind the Headlines the Jews of France

– All over France, in Paris, in Lyon, in Cannes, in Nice, all eyes are turned toward Rabbi Rene Samuel Sirat who early this year become the new Chief Rabbi of the Jewish community of France, the fourth largest Jewish community in the world.

Sirat, who is 50 years old, is an educator, scholar and intellectual. His academic credentials are impressive indeed. That is why the French Jewish community is hoping he can stem the high tide of assimilation and intermarriage, the latter of which probably is even higher than the often-quoted U.S. rate of 48 percent.

In an interview at his office in the Consistoire Central, it becomes obvious that Sirat’s goal is to stress education. He wants to double the number of kindergartens, day schools and secondary schools that now exist in France. Today, there are more than 50 day schools, more than 200 Talmud Torahs, several hundred synagogues and more than 600 organizations and associations, for a Jewish population of about 700,000.

His target is to reach out to those who have no ties at all to Judaism, to tell them, he said, “we love them; we want them to come back.”

A professor, Sirat has had much experience with young people and students. For many years, he has been involved in academic affiars at the Sorbonne. He was director of the Hebrew section there and the man most responsible for the development of Hebrew studies on the university level. He sits as chairman of Ph.D. candidates in Hebrew and is president of the Inter-University Center for Higher Education in Contemporary Jewry.

CHANGING JEWISH SCENE

Born in Bone, Algeria, Sirat has the distinction of being the first Sephardic Jew elected Chief Rabbi in this century. Significantly, France is one of the few countries outside of Israel where the Jewish community since World War II has changed from a majority of Ashkenazic Jews to one of Sephardic Jews.

While it is true that the integration of the massive waves of Sephardic Jews who arrived in the 1950s and 1960s from North Africa was excellent, while it is true that the adjustment and cooperation between Ashkenazim and Sephardim is probably one of the best in recent Jewish history, and while it is also true that Sephardim and Ashkenazim now say there are no differences between them anymore and that they are united, despite all that, Sirat’s election was not lost on the Sephardic Jews who are the overwhelming majority today in France.

Tradition reigns in France and Sirat was elected by the Consistoire Central which was organized by Napolean. It was the first Consistoire which appointed the first Chief Rabbi of France, David Sintzheim, a Sephardic Jew. In effect, the Chief Rabbi is the chief spokesperson of the Jews in France.

Today, it is Sirat, as well as Baron Alain de Rothschild, chairman of the Representative Council of Jewish Organizations in France (CRIF) and also chairman of the Consistoire, who speak for French Jewry and, when necessary, make “representations” to the French government.

Sirat is extremely articulate and capable of calling on political skill and diplomatic language if needed. Those who saw him on French television recently say he was “a master of the political word.”

He has declared that his program includes fighting racism aimed against Jews, as well as against non-Jews. “We also are against racism aimed against Arabs or Blacks, “he added. He was pleased at the huge mass demonstration in Paris that turned out to protest the bombing of the synagogue in Rue Copernic last October. “The feelings were warm and they stirred us all,” he stated. “Still, the community must be vigilant,” he cautioned.

‘DON’T FORGET US, WE EXIST’

Representing 700,000 Jews, the rabbi hopes for stronger bridges with American Jewry. He wants American Jews to know the French community. And he had a special message to American Jews: “Don’t forget us, we exist.” Over and over again, he repeated that he feels that American Jewish and French Jewish leaders should meet more often and noted that it is a “pity” that the American Jewish community is not familiar with the French Jewish community.

The American Jewish community is the largest in the Western world; France is the second, Sirat observed. Yet, contact between “the great Jewish communities in the diaspora,” he said, “occurs only in Israel.”

And he seemed to feel that there is not too much interchange between the groups themselves in France or in the U.S.

Like a new president, Sirat has the hopes and aspirations of the Jewish people of France flowing out to him. In is a new beginning for Sirat. As he faces the task ahead, those who know him say he will succeed.

(Tomorrow; Part Two)

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