I’ll never forget the chill that trickled through my body while standing in the dining room of the Ozar Hatorah Jewish day school in Toulouse, France, on March 19, 2012.
Four bodies were covered with tallitot (prayer shawls). Three of them were children, one of them a young father. I was a young journalist who happened to be in France when I got a text message that there was a shooting and that they were asking Jews around the world to pray for Miriam bat Ya’acov. I knew this was the daughter of Rabbi Ya’acov Monsenego, the school’s veteran headmaster, someone I worked with in the past.
I pushed off walking into the dining room. I was afraid of what I would see.
“Eventually, I surrendered and entered the dining room, which has changed since I was there a few years ago,” I wrote in 2012 for the Hebrew-language Makor Rishon newspaper. “From a tidy and well-kept place where three meals a day were served, it became a morgue: The four bodies of the murdered were placed at the end of the hall. Around the room, hundreds of people stood – mainly from this small and close Jewish community. Those present read Psalms, heard Torah and strengthening words, and mostly hugged. As a bystander it would seem that no one wanted to leave the compound; they needed each other’s reinforcement.”
Eva, the wife of the late Rabbi Yonatan Sandler and the mother of the children who were murdered that morning, stood in front of the audience and told about her husband with teary eyes. Sandler’s father also spoke and strengthened the public with sweeping words of Torah.
I knew this school and its headmaster very well since I was in charge of sending shlichim (emissaries) on behalf of the World Zionist Organization for a few years and was in close contact with Monsenego.
At 11 p.m. there was sudden darkness on the school grounds, which clearly reminded me of the “lights off” and curfew strictly practiced at the school during normal times. How ironic.
I became emotionally disconnected and was imbued with purpose. But when I was with one foot outside the school gate, one of the family members shouted at me, “Maariv?” – meaning he was inviting me to join a group of 10 men for the evening prayers.
The family members and the students from the yeshiva were agitated, the reading of the Shema prayer was shouted bitterly, and voices of weeping were heard throughout the silent portion of the prayer, which was undoubtedly longer than usual.
I’ve visited Toulouse many times since. Ironically, for many years I was in Toulouse more times than in Paris – even though most French Jews live in the capital and its suburbs. Little did I know back then that this wasn’t a one-time event but was the turning point for French and European Jewry, which would never be the same.
OZAR HATORAH, now called Ohr Torah, didn’t have security in or outside the school in 2012. Years later, during a visit, the place was like a fortress, with guards inside and outside and security cameras.
In 2012, most police officers in France weren’t carrying guns, yet after the attacks at the Charlie Hebdo magazine office and the Hyper Cacher supermarket in Paris, all of the city centers of the French Republic were filled with armed police officers and soldiers.
Jewish institutions in Europe have become extreme in their security measures, as they were instructed by many high-profile defense personnel, and it is very difficult to even get close to a building with a Jewish institution in it without being stopped and interrogated.
In the past decade, the number of immigrants from France rose dramatically, declined dramatically and is now increasing again.
If in 2012 no one could imagine that a massacre of children just because they are Jewish could happen in Europe of the 21st century, these days, unfortunately, none of us are surprised anymore.
Governments have since tried to combat antisemitism across Europe, and endless conferences that raised awareness for this terrible phenomenon have taken place. But any day we can, unfortunately, wake up to another situation of mass murder of Jews just because they are Jewish. Yet it is no longer just a European phenomenon; endless antisemitic incidents took place in the past few years in the US, and it doesn’t seem to be getting better.
It took Monsenego and his wife, Yaffa, five years to finally speak about the worst day of their lives.
“It burns if you get close, so we run away from it,” Monsenego told me five years ago, with tears in his eyes.
“I remember then-president Nicolas Sarkozy coming to visit the school immediately afterward, along with other senior officials,” he said. “But we were in a different world.”
I asked Monsenego, “As a father and school principal, how do you deal with such a crisis?”
“I totally let loose,” he said. “I was completely disconnected, not in this world.”
“There is no longer any point in living as before,” he told me five years ago. “I don’t have the same strength I used to have, not the same enthusiasm. The feeling is that you are carrying a ton on your shoulders; you have to carry a very heavy weight and still move forward.”
The question is, can we really fight the forces of extreme Islam across Europe? Even with all of the money in the world that would have been invested in combating antisemitism, the grassroots hate toward Jews and Israel exists across the continent at high levels. Security is important, but issues of education and influencing Muslim religious and thought leaders are even more important.
Ten years ago, as I made my way to the main train station in Toulouse, I felt heartbroken.
“The situation in France and Toulouse is difficult and complicated, and it is not yet clear how the recent events will affect daily life in the city,” I wrote then. “But one thing is for sure, the latest attack is not a one-time event but part of a growing phenomenon that threatens not only French Jewry but all of European Jewry.”