Special Interview France’s Jews Have Come of Age

Rabbi Rene Samuel Sirat, the 50-year-old Algerian-born rabbi who was installed as Chief Rabbi of France Jan. I, believes that the French Jewish community, the fourth largest in the world, has come of age.

A strong united French community can now offer advice to other Jewish communities instead of just receiving funds or advice, Sirat said in an interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency at the Washington Hilton, where he was attending the 75th anniversary meeting of the American Jewish Committee.

Sirat, who is on his first official visit to the United States in his capacity as Chief Rabbi, #aid that although there is a friendly feeling among French Jews for American Jewry, the two communities do not really know much about each other. Speaking in French, through an interpreter, Sirat noted that both communities are beset by problems of intermarriage and assimilation. But, he noted, while there is a zero population growth in the U.S. there is a high birth rate among French Jews.

The Chief Rabbi stressed that French Jewry was totally united and that the Eastern European Jews and the larger number of North African Jews who have come to France since World War II, have totally integrated with the older Jewish population.

RETURNING TO JEWISH VALUES

What was continually pointed out by Sirat is that French Jewry is a young community. He stressed that young French Jews are returning to Jewish values and are committed to Jewish education. He credited this in part to a disillusionment with ideology by young French Jews following the abortive May 1968 youth rebellions in Paris. He said young Jews want to return to their own people.

But Sirat also credited this return to Jewish values to the influence of North African Jews who are more religiously observant than their European co-religionists. He noted that in 1955 there were five kosher butchers in Paris and now there are 140.

Sirat said there is a return to religion itself and young Jews are crowding the synagogues. He said Jews are once again learning to pray directly to God rather than attending services passively.

The Chief Rabbi said that thanks to the Jewish Agency and the Fonds Social Juife Unifie the number of children in day schools has doubled in the last four years. He said the Institute of Oriental Languages of the New Sorbonne had 40 students taking Hebrew when he became a full professor there in 1965 and now has 1,200.

The rabbi would not speak about the recent French election, saying that the Chief Rabbi never speaks on politics except in extreme cases and never when he is abroad.

ANTI-SEMITISM IN FRANCE

But he discussed the problem of anti-Semitism in France. He said the French Jews were concerned with anti-Semitic attacks on Jewish institutions which, he noted, began even before the Rue Copernic synagogue was bombed last October. He said there was also concern about intellectuals who wrote books denying the Holocaust, which, he said, has raised questions among the young, Jews and non-Jews.

But, the Chief Rabbi stressed, the French Jewish community is a mature, responsible community which can meet this problem. He said the Jewish community was especially heartened by the largest turnout of non-Jews last October who denounced anti-Semitism, which demonstrated that the anti-Semites are a marginal segment of French society.

At the same time, pluralism is now accepted in France, Sirat observed. He said that Jews now believe they can be a separate community without going against their French nationality and without being a ghetto. He said the national body accepts this. In addition, French Jews have a sense of total solidarity with Israel, and this, too, is accepted by their fellow non-Jewish Frenchmen, he said.

As for himself, Sirat, the first Chief Rabbi of France to be born in North Africa, said that he wants to be the rabbi of all Jews in France and to reach all Jews. “Our job is to show that Judaism can speak not only to young Jews but to the world at large,” he declared.

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