PARIS – At 6 p.m. on a Friday, Rabbi Yeshaya Dalsace was in the kitchen
He had finished vacuuming the living room, where Shabbat
services would soon start. The first worshipers to arrive were put to work
setting up chairs and arranging platters of cucumbers and
Dalsace is the spiritual leader of Dor Vador, a 60-member
Masorti congregation in Paris.
Dor Vador is one of six congregations in
France affiliated with Masorti Europe, the European equivalent of the North
American Conservative movement.
On a shoestring budget, like the others,
it is run out of Dalsace’s apartment.
“When I need to buy supplies, like
books, I have to ask the members,” the rabbi said.
Unlike its North
American counterpart, which has been losing members for more than a decade, the
Masorti movement in Europe is growing.
Wedged between the larger and
better supported Progressive (Reform) movement and the Orthodox establishment,
which controls Jewish life in most European countries, the continent’s smaller
Masorti congregations have growing appeal for younger Jews.
The growth is
particularly apparent in France, home to an estimated 600,000
Mostly Sephardic since the 1960s, when Jews from the former French
colonies of North Africa poured in to replenish a community decimated in the
Holocaust, French Jews tend toward the traditional. But their observance level
is rarely as strict as the Ashkenazi-flavored Orthodox Judaism of the
Consistoire, the country’s Jewish governing body, which controls access to
rabbis, mohels, kosher meat and burial rites.
Just five to eight percent
of French Jews identify as Orthodox, according to recent surveys.
this philosophy better,” said 30-year-old Devorah Cohen.
members of French Masorti communities, Cohen grew up in a Consistoire-
affiliated synagogue, but she has spent the past four years with Dor Vador,
which she said suits her lifestyle and values.
“They don’t say ‘do this
and don’t do that.’ They explain why,” she said. “I think Masorti speaks to
French people more than the Consistoire.”
Yet in a country so dominated
by one Jewish stream, few French Jews understand what Masorti is all
“It’s a chronic problem of the Conservative movement,” said Rabbi
Rivon Krygier, a Conservative rabbi in Paris. “It’s difficult to position
oneself in the middle.”
French Masorti Judaism is much more traditional
than Conservative Judaism in the United States; it’s closer to the Israeli or
“I observe kashrut, nidda, all the Halacha,” Dalsace
A native Frenchman, Dalsace grew up Orthodox but became
disillusioned with what he said was the Consistoire’s rightward
“I’m closer to modern Orthodox, like most European Masorti Jews,”
The major distinction from Orthodoxy is egalitarianism, though
the Masorti congregation in Marseilles uses a mechitza barrier between the sexes
during worship. The country’s Masorti movement also welcomes conversion, and is
active in interfaith work and environmental issues.
Masorti congregation, Adath Shalom, was founded on the west side of Paris (in
the 15th arrondissement) in 1987 by a group of 50 families that broke away from
a Liberal (Reform) synagogue.
When the Belgian-born Krygier was hired in
1990, newly ordained from the Conservative Schechter Institute in Jerusalem,
some of the founding families left, afraid the congregation would become “too
Orthodox,” Krygier recalls.
Now with more than 300 dues-paying members,
Adath Shalom has outgrown its rented space and has more than 100 students
enrolled in its three-year-old day school, which is run in conjunction with two
Of France’s Masorti communities, three have rabbis
and three are lay-led. The country’s newest affiliate, in St. Germain en Laye, a
Paris suburb, joined in July, and a small group of young Jews in Paris are
creating La Schule, a Masorti-friendly minyan.
The French Masorti
movement operates with little money or infrastructure. Membership dues at Dor
Vador bring in just $18,000 a year, so Dalsace is a part-time rabbi. He
supplements his salary by teaching, running the movement’s website and leading
monthly services in Marseilles.
In the absence of enough rabbis, the
French Masorti leadership is trying to train young adults as lay
Several French Jewish foundations help out with funding, but
there is little support from the North American Conservative movement aside from
the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs, the umbrella group for about 250
Conservative men’s clubs. The federation’s executive director, Rabbi Charles
Simon, has mentored several of the French Masorti congregations, raising funds
to send them everything from Torah scrolls to rabbinical students.
half of Adath Shalom’s membership is Sephardic, and the Marseilles congregation
much more so, the movement as a whole is identified as “an American thing,”
Masorti activists acknowledge.
La Schule, which has some Sephardic
leadership, is trying to change that – but it’s a struggle.
the Masorti movement has a future in France,” Krygier said. “But it will be a
very big battle.”
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