PARIS (Sep. 25)
A desire for stronger Jewish identity is helping fuel skyrocketing enrollment at Jewish schools across France.
That thirst for Jewishness has been compounded by disillusionment with French public schools and a wave of anti-Semitic attacks across the country.
Now, with over 30,000 students beginning the year in Jewish schools, the United Jewish Social Funds — French Jewry’s umbrella social and educational organization, known by the acronym FSJU — estimates that around half of all school-age Jewish children in France attend Jewish schools.
Sabine Smadjar, a mother of two girls, lives next to a Parisian high school that a Jewish student had to leave earlier this year because of constant anti-Semitic abuse. Smadjar didn’t have to think hard before registering her school-age child at one of the largest and oldest Jewish schools in Paris, Lucien de Hirsch.
But even though Smadjar is a former student there, her child may not have a place at Lucien de Hirsch this year: The school had about 1,500 applications, for far fewer spots, said Patrick Petit-Ohayon, director of education for FSJU.
Since 2000, enrollment in France’s Jewish schools has risen by 3 percent a year. This year, early FSJU estimates put the growth figure at 4 percent.
Smadjar said the main reason for putting her daughter in a Jewish school was a desire to build her Jewish identity.
“I don’t want my kids to be in a position of not knowing about Judaism,” she said.
But for Smadjar’s husband, Yann, security was at least as big a concern.
“If we stay in France, it’s vital that we send the children to a Jewish school,” he said. “That applies as much to a nursery school as it does to a high school, because today there are so many problems with the state sector over subjects such as educating about the Shoah.”
At Yabne, a big Jewish school in the south of Paris, parents who want their children to start school at age 3 have to register a child by the January following his or her birth.
But it is at newer schools that still have room for more students that the numbers are really burgeoning. Laurence Guez, a mother from an Orthodox neighborhood in Paris, said extra classes had been added this year for some grades at her children’s Chabad-Lubavitch-run school, Sinai.
Guez, also director of a Lubavitch nursery school, or creche, said that this year she was unable to accept any more children at her own institution.
“It’s very worrying because there’s more and more demand for places,” Guez said. “All the creches around here are full, so the mothers either have to stop working or look around for other alternatives.”
Numbers are up not just at Orthodox day schools.
More than 80 percent of students in Jewish schools attend private schools where the Ministry of Education pays teachers’ salaries and enforces the national curriculum, Petit-Ohayon said — showing that they are not opting out of French society entirely.
The other 20 percent study in fervently Orthodox schools that do not need to follow the state curriculum.
The network of institutions run by ORT also is reporting a sharp increase in enrollment.
Guy Sepiak, director-general of ORT in France, said demand for spots is particularly high among junior high school students as Jewish parents want to pull their children out of state-run schools due to falling educational standards and a fear of anti-Semitism.
With rising demand at ORT schools in the Paris suburbs, classes at those institutions are so full that ORT is restricting its acceptance of non-Jewish children.
At ORT’s largest school in the Paris region, Jewish students now made up 95 percent of the student body, up from 75 percent last year.
Anti-Semitism is only one of several factors leading to the shift toward private and parochial schools. Other factors are the wave of teachers’ strikes in French public schools last year and higher standardized test scores at private and parochial institutions.
“There is a certain crisis within the state sector, and Jewish parents are often just as likely to send their children to non-Jewish — and even Catholic — private schools,” Petit-Ohayon said.
However, he rejected the notion that FSJU was unable to meet the demand for Jewish education. He said the FSJU prefers to increase the numbers of classes within existing schools rather than building new schools.
“We have to be careful,” Petit-Ohayon said. “There was a similar rise in the early 1990s and there were demands to build, but it leveled off toward the end of the decade, when the schools were still not full.”
But, he added, “since the beginning of the second intifada and the rise in anti-Semitism, we’re back to those earlier figures.”
The reticence to build new schools in France also may have something to do with questions about the future of French Jewry. A new poll by a demographer at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University showed that 6 percent of French Jews plan to move to Israel, with 36 percent saying they might consider the option.
“We have to see how things evolve,” Petit-Ohayon said in a recent interview with the French Jewish weekly Actualite Juive. “Taking into account the increasingly massive aliyah of French Jews, it would be a shame to open schools which later risk being empty.”