Behind the Headlines the Jews of France
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Behind the Headlines the Jews of France

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— In a world of resorts, the French Riviera is queen. The portrait of this symbol of glamor includes beaches, perched villages and hamlets, sun terraces, promenades, art galleries, fireworks, flower shows, film and folk festivals, palm trees, gardens and red tiled roofs.

More than 35,000 Jews live and work in this vacation land, from Toulon to Menton. They reside in towns whose names head lists of world-famous tourist havens: Cannes, Antibes, St. Tropez and Nice.

Presently arriving into the south of France are Jews emigrating from Israel. While this emigration flow does not reach the proportion of Jews moving from Israel to the United States, the topic of yerida (emigration from Israel) is beginning to come up in discussions with French Jewish leaders as well as with those who work with the Fonds Social Juif Unifie (FSJU) which coordinates, supervises and plans social, educational and cultural activities of the French Jewish community.

The majority of those coming from Israel to France are those who retained French citizenship. In Nice, (and Lyon to the north) about 30 yordim families arrived last year, in each city, attracted in part by their relatives who help them get adjusted. If those coming from Israel possess French citizenship, they can manage. It is, however, the ones who do not have citizenship that undergo difficulties. With rising unemployment, it is difficult to obtain a work permit. Those who need help receive it from the Jewish community.

SOME OF THE JEWISH NEWCOMERS

Back in the 1950’s and 1960’s several hundred thousand North African Jews poured into France. Among them were the Jews of Algeria, entitled to benefits given to all Frenchmen, including jobs and civil servant positions. Under the Cremieux decree they were French citizens.

Gabriel Bouaziz was one of those. Born in Oran, he fought with the Americans in North Africa in World War II. When Algeria became independent and the French departed, the Jews went with them. Bouaziz came to Cannes, a new immigrant. Several decades later, he has risen to the post of deputy major of Cannes and he also heads the Jewish community in the city.

Not all the leadership of French Jewry are newcomers. Members of the Rothschild family hold respected posts. Baron Guy de Rothschild is president of FSJU; Baron Alain de Rothschild is president of the Consistoire and heads the Representative Council of Jewish Organizations in France (CRIF); and Baron Elie de Rothschild is active in the French United Jewish Appeal.

A person who is in a position of leadership but whose family has been in Nice since the 17th Century is Fred Lattes. He, too, is a member of the City Council of Nice and serves with another Jewish official, M. Slama. Lattes is president of the Jewish community of the Riviera.

COMBATTING ASSIMILATION

A visitor cannot but observe the new professionals, the men and women who staff the Jewish organizations. The civil servants are at the care of the battle to combat assimilation. In North Africa, there was no place for Jews to go. Life was built around the rightly knit Jewish community, especially the synagogue and the Sephardim did not have the experience of building organizations as their European co-religionists.

For Jews, France is an open society; the universities, the professions, the government, the media, politics are wide open to them. They have achieved high positions in civic affairs, business and entertainment. The children of the immigrants from North Africa are by and large professionals today: doctors, dentists, lawyers, financial experts and scholars.

V. Altun directs the FSJU in Nice which has a Jewish population of about 25,000. Like his counterparts in Paris, he guides the operations which support community centers, for youths as well as senior citizens.

Also, in the same office on 15 rue d’Angleterre is the French version of the UJA, a rather new institution which was helped in establishing itself organizationally by the American UJA. Israelis who came to France as shlichim also aided French Jewry build institutions.

There is a new and younger leadership coming to the fore, too. For instance, in Nice, Dr. Lucien Samak is president of FSJU. He is young, dynamic and has a good grasp of political and social events.

RABBIS ARE A MAJOR FORCE

The rabbis of the Consistoire of France are a major force, for the Consistoire has the responsibility for all Jewish religious life in France. In Lyon, to the north, the Grand Rabbi of Lyon, Rabbi Richard Wertenschlag, is part of the great traditions of rabbis from Alsace-Lorraine. He is from Metz, which is not too far from Strasbourg. The latter is known as the “Jerusalem of France”–the city which has provided the majority of the chief rabbis of France.

Rabbi Jean Kling is the Grand Rabbi of the Nice region. He is proud of the positive sketches of this community: the many who speak Hebrew; the active youth organizations such as B’nai Akiva, WIZO, B’nai B’rith lodges; lectures, seminars, parties, fundraising and programs for Israel.

It is a community which is united, especially after the bombing of the Rue Copernic synagogue in Paris last October, though the shock still lingers. There is no panic. There are problems, but no fear about facing them. But this is no longer a new community; the newcomers have adjusted. The Ashkenazim and Sephardim have integrated. The institutions have been established. The foundation has been built. Phase Two now begins: the strengthening of the community. It is, after all the second largest Jewish community in the Western world, outside of Israel.

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