PARIS – Parents with young children hurriedly entered the Don Abravanel Synagogue Monday morning. The soldiers at the door let them in quickly.
No one could stay by the entrance.
Inside the well-protected building, one of the offices has been turned into a mini army camp, with green service bags piling up at the corner, soldiers resting on plastic chairs, community members coming in and out with food and beverages for these tired, young boys.
This set-up is far from being unique to the Abravanel Synagogue.
The French government has decided to delegate the safe-guarding of Jewish institutions to the army for the time being, while beefing up police presence in all Jewish neighborhoods.
This small Ashkenazi synagogue near Leon Blum Square was formerly guarded only by the community. This basement synagogue has no exterior Jewish signs and is thus unrecognizable as a place of prayer by anyone on the street. Now a soldier is posted in front of it on Saturday mornings.
The CJL Liberal Community Center, just two blocks away on Rue Moufle, is also heavily guarded. In the past, this discrete red-brick building offered anonymity, but ever since the attack on the Hyper Cacher supermarket on January 9, the atmosphere has changed. Even here.
Serge Benhaim, president of the Don Abravanel Synagogue, tells The Jerusalem Post
that the massacre a month ago at the Hyper Cacher has radically changed the shul. “There is before January 9 and there is after January 9. We have suffered through the murder of Ilan Halimi and through the terrible events of Toulouse. But from now on, we can no longer have the door of any synagogue, of any Jewish school, left open. Those days are over.”
The synagogue on Rue de la Roquette was attacked by a pro-Palestinian mob last July, shocking community members. The Hyper Cacher attack reinforced these feelings of despair and insecurity. Benhaim says that his community members are at a loss.
“They turn to us, the leaders of the community, constantly. Each day they ask ‘should we stay or should we leave?’ I believe that if we encourage them to leave, about 70 percent of them will immigrate to Israel in a matter of a year or two. But for now we advise them to remain in France.
If the majority of French Jews leave, what will be of our schools? Our synagogues? Our cemeteries? What will happen to the few who will remain behind?” Still, he believes that many will actually make the decision to leave.
He says that nine families from his synagogue have left over the course of the last year, and that four more families are now planning their aliya.
Jacques, who assists in guarding the building, tells me that people keep coming to pray.
“They are maybe afraid, but they keep coming. They are loyal to the synagogue. They feel that coming here is ever more important than before.”
Michel lives not far from the Hyper Cacher. He does not want me to mention his name. His children go to the neighborhood public school and he is not a regular synagogue goer, but feels very much a part of the French Jewish community.
“We are all in shock, of course – that this would happen here, in France, 70 years after the Holocaust – but I will keep sending my children to the Jewish scouts.” He himself does not consider immigrating to Israel, but admits that many of his friends are considering this option.
Francis Kalifat, vice president of the French Jewish umbrella organization CRIF, emphasizes that though the Jewish community is overwhelmed these days by feelings of concern and apprehension, these sentiments are also shared by the French nation as a whole.
“The speeches of President Hollande and Prime Minister Manuel Valls were indeed strong and decisive, but speeches must be followed by acts. We have submitted a series of proposals, and we expect the authorities to take action on several fronts: at the educational system, within prisons, where extreme Islam propagates and on the Internet,” Kalifat said.
He concedes that Jews who might have considered the possibility of immigrating to Israel have certainly been encouraged to take that step following recent events.
“The authorities must recreate an atmosphere of security. Jews should be at liberty to leave France and follow the Zionist dream as a personal project, not as a wave. They should not leave France because they are afraid,” he says.
Conversations with Jews in Paris and elsewhere in France reveal that, a month after the Hyper Cacher massacre, surprise and shock are giving way to disappointment and even disillusionment. Many of them think that the Toulouse murders should have been a warning sign to the French nation, and that the awakening now is too little, too late.
“The French nation went out to the streets after the Charlie Hebdo
and the Hyper Cacher massacres.
Would a million people have gone out to the streets just for the sake of the kosher shop murders? We do not know. The masses did not go out to the streets after Toulouse. They did not go out to the streets after Ilan Halimi,” said Benhaim sadly.