French immigrants rally to stop synagogue from being shut down

The Ahavat Israel synagogue is home to 400 French and Israeli families

August 5, 2019 00:55
The neighborhood of Herzliya Pituach where the Ahavat Israel synagogue is situatuated.

The neighborhood of Herzliya Pituach where the Ahavat Israel synagogue is situatuated.. (photo credit: LEV TSIMBLER/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

Herzliya’s French immigrant community is fighting to stop their Ahavat Israel Synagogue from being shut down by the city’s municipality.

For nearly a decade, the synagogue and the municipality have been arguing over land permits and permissions. But now, the municipality is threatening to shutter the facility where some 400 families pray. The community plans to hold a protest on Thursday at Kikar Shalit, and call on Herzliya Mayor Moshe Fadlon to allow them to retain their “exception permit” for the synagogue to remain operational.

The synagogue has been operating for more than 10 years and has become a hub for French immigrants and Israelis of all backgrounds.

“I made aliyah in August 2006 from London,” explained French-born Mikhail Botbol, one of the organizers of the protest. “We came here because we love Israel. When we came here, a few families... came together to form a new synagogue.” Botbol noted that the group included David Dahan, president of the French immigrant community in the city.

Botbol explained that the need for this synagogue arose because of the change in culture and a need to create a place where French immigrants could be comfortable.

“The synagogue is the center for all Jews in France,” he said, explaining that all streams of Judaism, including religious and secular, go to synagogues in France – and this is what they wanted to create here.

“In France, you have people who walk to the synagogue and some who also drive to that same place – it’s a mix,” he said. “In Israel, you are either Orthodox, secular or Reform; we wanted an open culture [like in France].”

Botbol also explained that his wife had started organizing Torah classes, and up until the establishment of the Ahavat Israel Synagogue, they were unable to hold the classes in the local Sephardi synagogue.

He said that one day, he and Dahan saw the class taking place in the stairwell of the building and asked them what was going on. When he found out they had no place to learn, they decided to form the Ahavat Israel Synagogue.

At its inception, there were only 10 families, but over the years it has grown into a community center for all Jews, with learning programs, daily prayer services and even bachurim (teenaged yeshiva students) from Bnei Brak who come daily to learn with the congregants.

The home housing the synagogue, he said, has two neighbors; in front of it is municipal land that stands empty, aside for a large parking area.

ASKED WHAT led to the dispute, Botbol said that when the synagogue opened 10 years ago, Yael German, who was the mayor of Herzliya at the time, was continuing to welcome French immigrants to the city with open arms.

However, as the synagogue grew, there were complaints about the noise and busy traffic in the area, whereas Herzliya Pituah is a quiet place (one of the neighbors is now suing the synagogue).

“I totally understand their complaints and frustration: If I lived next door to something like this I would also complain,” he emphasized, adding that it would be solved if they were given the empty municipal land in front of the home housing the shul.

Although not religious, while German was still mayor, she sat down with the synagogue’s leaders, including Dahan, to discuss the matter.

She promised to help find a place for the shul during the five years she was mayor of the city. However, after she became a member of Knesset, this effort was not actualized.
Botbol said that when Fadlon was elected as mayor of the city, they were initially excited because they thought this process would be completed, but Fadlon has expressed opposition to assisting the synagogue.

The community requested that the synagogue be built on part of the municipality’s 1.3 hectares (3 acres) of land, which sits in front of the shul, and is still empty “because you can only build a synagogue on municipal land.”

However, nothing has come of it – and now the community has been told that they have until September to vacate the structure housing the synagogue or they will be evicted.

He said that Fadlon did offer them land on the other side of Herzliya, which Dahan accepted. But despite filing the papers, nothing has come of that, either.

“The reasons we’ve been given for the eviction don’t make sense: They said we’ve built 12 sq.m. too much and that we have only one parking garage when there’s an entire parking area in front of the synagogue,” Botbol said.

The municipality was not immediately available for comment.
“People moved into this area [Herzliya Pituah] to be closer to the synagogue and there is also the modern-Orthodox school here,” he continued. “The ba’al koreh [Torah reader], who is about 75 or 80, especially moved onto the street [of the synagogue] so he could be close. The synagogue is also close to hotels as well and it’s a great option for families who are here in the summer.”

There have been calls from several rabbis and prominent figures for the synagogue not to be closed, including from the son of France’s former chief rabbi Yaakov Sitruk, and Meyer Habib, a French Parliament member representing French citizens outside France, including in Israel.

Habib wrote a strongly worded letter to Faldon, which he also sent to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Interior Minister Arye Deri and Immigration Minister Yoav Galant, calling on the mayor to create a “sustainable” and “lawful solution” to this matter.

There are also videos circulating of soldiers from the community, who are serving in the IDF, calling on the mayor and the municipality not to close Ahavat Israel.

Nearly 2,000 people have signed an online petition on behalf of the synagogue.

“David Dahan has given everything to this community; he has worked so hard to make it what it is,” Botbol stressed.

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