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Troyes rabbi worries about the future

TROYES, France, July 27 (JTA) — One of the most notable features of Abba Samoun’s office is the gray military uniform and short-peaked cap commonly warn by French policemen and military officers. An army chaplain, Samoun had just returned from a trip to a prison near Toulouse in southern France, around 500 miles from his home just around the corner from the 16th-century medieval building which houses the synagogue in Troyes. Apart from his role as an army chaplain, Samoun visits Jewish prisoners across the country, often interceding with the authorities to make sure they are provided with kosher meals. In his 70s, Samoun admits that the constant train and air travel tires him and also takes him away from his other work as chief rabbi of Troyes and Champagne-Ardennes. Born in Fez, Morocco, Samoun immigrated to France in 1946 and began studying in one of the country’s leading yeshivahs in the Eastern spa town of Aix-les-Bains. In 1951, Isidore Frankforter, a leading figure in the Troyes Jewish community, brought Samoun to the city to assist in the Jewish education of his two daughters. Initially employed in Frankforter’s hat factory, Samoun was soon to be engaged as a teacher in Troyes’ Jewish education classes, and by 1952, he was officially installed as the “officiating minister” of the Troyes community. “I was young and I wanted to do something in this city of Rashi. I asked where the shul was but there wasn’t one,” he said. Many Jews from the Champagne region were deported during World War II, and those who had returned to Troyes held prayers in a house, Samoun recalled. “The Protestant community in Troyes gave us a room to pray in, but we had a problem for Shavuot because it clashed with their Pentecost,” he said. For some time, Samoun said, the community only held services on Passover and the High Holidays. “I decided we’d try for Shabbat services as well. We weren’t sure of a minyan, but you’re not going to get any customers if you don’t open the shop,” he said. Eventually, the community received a permanent home in a 16th-century building, which had been occupied by a local parish priest. Until the early 1960s, the Troyes synagogue had always held services according to Ashkenazi customs, although with many families arriving from North Africa, this was soon to change. “The community leaders who were Ashkenazi recognized that they were no longer the majority and they willingly initiated the change,” Samoun said. Nevertheless, Samoun pointed out, “I have retained some parts of the Ashkenazi tradition in the services, so that you can say we have a certain Troyes service.” “I have always believed that Jews should live and worship together,” Samoun said. “To their credit, the community leaders have always felt like this as well that there should be no question of two synagogues in Troyes.” With around 120 families, the community holds regular services on Shabbat and holidays, “but people will always try and put together a minyan when somebody has yahrzeit,” Samoun said. The product of an Ashkenazi yeshiva education, Samoun has no trouble throwing out European Jewish terms despite his own Sephardi roots. He knows, though, that the future of the Troyes community does not look bright. Generally, the young members of the community leave to study in Paris because Troyes has no university. “They settle in Paris or they go to Israel and their parents join them,” he says with a mixture of pride and sadness. One idea to keep the community alive was to create the Rashi Institute, he said. “I thought we could have a yeshiva here and Jewish students would come and invigorate the community,” Samoun said. However, while the Rashi Institute runs courses and conferences and is affiliated with Israel’s Bar-Ilan University, most of the people who take courses there are non-Jews. “This is happening with many smaller communities in France. Here in the Champagne region, there are towns where the rabbi left and now they only hold services on Yom Kippur,” Samoun said. But this must not be allowed to happen in Troyes, he said. “It’s like the story in the Talmud about the carob tree. It only gives fruit in 70 years. You plant it for your children. It took a long time to finish renovating the synagogue and now we have a mikvah as well. Jewish schools come here and sometimes they stay for Shabbat. There always has to be a Jewish community in the town of Rashi,” Samoun said.