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French Jews struggle with their message

PARIS, June 24 (JTA) — As Jewish high school seniors cram for their baccalaureate exams, the Jewish community in Paris is engaged in soul-searching over the role of Jewish education in French society.

Signaling the mounting concern was the publication last month in the Jewish weekly, Actualite Juive, of a supplement assessing the state of religious instruction in French Jewish schools. The schools provide both secular and Jewish education.

Surveying numerous school directors, rabbis, teachers and former students throughout France, the paper reports some positive developments — for instance, that religion teachers, traditionally the lowest paid faculty members, finally have begun to see a rise in salaries.

On the whole, however, the paper presents religious teaching as a communal tradition in danger of becoming irrelevant for a younger generation intent on achieving success in French society.

Religious instruction “is looked upon as the neglected child since there is no grading system sanctioning the level of knowledge, a problem always debated in Jewish schools,” explains Adam Ouknine, the Director of the Lycee Yeshiva Etz-Haim in St. Maur, a Parisian suburb.

Students in Jewish schools post above-average results on the national exams needed for admission to French universities, but school directors complain that the students sometimes lack motivation in their religious studies.

One contributor to Actualite Juive concludes that the biggest challenge to teaching Jewish observance today is “to convey a system of values which in most cases has no relationship with the everyday life of students at home.”

If such sentiments are disturbing to the more conservative members of the community, they are the material upon which Rabbi Vicky Bellahsen staked his candidacy for chief rabbi of Paris, though he ultimately lost to the incumbent, David Messas.

Bellahsen, a former director of educational services for the Consistoire de Paris — the assembly of rabbis and laymen that governs Jewish affairs in the city — criticized the Parisian Jewish educational system for a “lack of dynamism” that fails to meet parents’ expectations.

What’s needed, Bellahsen says, is a renewed effort to relate religious instruction to the reality of mainstream French life.

“We have to show that Judaism has a message to send out to modern civilization,” Bellahsen advises. “There is a necessity to open up to the surrounding cultural environment and to adapt the message of the synagogue to it. We have to interest youth, get the elites back and prevent the ghettoization of the community.”

This call for a more adaptive Judaism reflects a general recognition that market concerns have penetrated the Jewish educational system. Schools apparently have gotten the message both that they must adapt themselves to compete successfully with secular schools, and to prepare their students for the professional challenges they will face in the New Economy.

Judging from the advertisements that fill the Jewish press, many Jewish schools already are in the process of adapting. The quantity of school recruitment ads reveals that competition for incoming students is stiff, especially in the Paris region, a situation that has demanded innovation.

To attract potential students, many schools now tout their multimedia resources and their ability to train students for the “high-tech world.”

In the midst of their reflection on the role of Jewish education and the place of Judaism in modern French society, French Jews recently received an ugly reminder of why Jewish schools remain necessary in the 21st century.

At the College Landowski, a public junior high in the Paris suburb of Boulogne-Billancourt, teen-agers studying English grammar were given practice sheets with sentences expressing an anti-Israeli perspective.

The phrases, which the students were to rewrite in the passive voice, were: “The Palestinian Imad family has buried Wael;” “Israeli soldiers shot him in the head;” “His friends took him to the hospital immediately;” “Teenagers’ deaths keep Doctor Abdel Mari busy every night”; and “Israeli soldiers will kill again Palestinian children.”

Distressed students brought the matter to their parents’ attention; it has now been taken up by the International League Against Racism and Anti-Semitism. Michel Zaoui, the head of the league’s legal division, has reported the situation to the Academy of Versailles — the administrative body that governs the local schools — which has assigned an inspector to investigate the case.

In a meeting with five mothers, however, the school principal refused to comment on the actions of the English professor, telling the women they were overreacting.

Such incidents may help convince French Jews of the need to retain control over their children’s education.

Most likely, it is the more liberal elements of the community — whose children attend public schools, and who view religious instruction mainly as a complement to their children’s secular education — who will be most deeply affected by any anti-Israel rhetoric in the schools.

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