By Rabbi Sharon Litwin
I just returned home from a trip of a lifetime to Paris with my daughter. She chose to not have a big Bat Mitzvah celebration and instead she chose to take a special trip to see the City of Light. We have already traveled to Israel twice, so I didn’t feel it was important that her Bat Mitzvah be about Israel and Jewish identity building, but I did insist that we find a way to celebrate Shabbat with the Parisian Jewish community in some way.
About a month ago, I wrote an email to the Masorti/Conservative synagogue in Paris asking about their services and inquiring if there might be a chance for us to be hosted by a family for a Shabbat meal. I wanted us to have a Jewish experience and I thought that given the current political climate and terror threats to the Jewish community, we would learn so much over the meal…and we did!
We got a little lost finding the shul, which is on the ground floor of an apartment building just a few blocks from the Eiffel Tower. I wouldn’t have found it at all if not for a kind woman on the street who pointed out the armed policemen standing outside the building. We were only able to get in because it had been arranged in advance. The synagogue had a guard inside a first set of doors, who knew we were coming and let us in.
We arrived in time for L’cha Dodi which was being sung to an unfamiliar melody. The service was led by a young man, who we later learned is their new cantor. My daughter remarked that she liked the melodies but that they seemed a little different. Of course all of the announcements and a lengthy D’var Torah were in French, which we did not understand, but we still felt comfortable sitting among the community.
After services, there was no Oneg or social time, and our hostess pointed out that everyone was hungry and going home to Shabbat dinner. She told us that tonight there was a small crowd — only about 75 people because it was the beginning of summer vacations — but normally there are close to 200 people at services on Friday night.
Over dinner, we spoke more intimately about the life of the families who were eating with us. We learned that most of the French Jewish community is of North African descent; that of the 250,000 Jews in France, only a quarter are Ashkenazi and descendants of survivors of World War II. This was a surprise to me. But, one of the guests told me that the very small group of survivors mostly fled France after the War, and those that did not flee, hid their Judaism for almost 20 years. He said it wasn’t until the massive North African immigration in the 1970s that the Ashkenazi community came out into the open. His words were “the Ashkenaz community was decimated.”
We also learned that the Jewish community is almost entirely made of of Jewish-Jewish couples; there are very few interfaith families in the French Jewish community. There are only three women rabbis in all of France and two of them were ordained by the Conservative movement but we’re not able to find work except in the Reform community. And, finally, we learned that over 20,000 French Jews have moved to Israel in the past 2twoyears and many more are heading there. They say that the climate in France is threatening to Jews and that they don’t want to raise their children in an anti-Semitic environment.
All in all, though most of our conversation was in English with some Hebrew, it was fascinating to learn about the Jewish community in Paris and to feel a strong connection to people we had never met because of our shared heritage and faith.