French Jews say au revoir to Paris; prepare for Aliya

“We’ve been spending six weeks in Israel every year since and last summer we finally decided to move.”

French family 311 (photo credit: Alain Azria)
French family 311
(photo credit: Alain Azria)
PARIS – It’s Tuesday morning on a glorious summer day in the beautiful French capital and the Szpigielmans are preparing to say good-bye.
Their large apartment on the third floor of a 19th-century building is filled with dozens of suitcases and boxes containing all their worldly possessions.
Diane Szpigielman, the matriarch of this energetic family of eight, sits serenely on a stool in the middle of this sea of luggage and speaks about their decision to immigrate to Israel.
“We wanted to make aliya four years ago, but it didn’t work out then,” she says. “We’ve been spending six weeks in Israel every year since and last summer we finally decided to move.” Her husband, who is standing beside her, speaks only French, so she assumes the role of spokeswoman.
Later in the day, the Szpigielmans will board a chartered jumbo jet bringing around 400 olim to Israel. The flight is part of a summer airlift that will bring the number of French Jews who moved to Israel this year to 2,200, a 20 percent hike from 2009, the Jewish Agency said.
In the meantime, the Szpigielmans’ kids are making the best of the situation.
The older ones help their parents while the younger two run around the creaky wooden floors in the old apartment building.
Only one child is absent: Danielle, the eldest, who is 18. She made aliya last year and joined much of their extended family in Israel.
“My mother, my brother’s family and my daughter have already moved to Israel,” Diane Szpigielman says.
Isn’t she worried that her six children – three boys and three girls- will someday have to join the army? “It doesn’t frighten us at all,” she answers without hesitation.
Meanwhile, on the other side of town, 18-year-old Hannah Schwarcz is preparing to board the same flight. This young, slightly shy young woman is immigrating on her own, leaving her parents and two younger brothers behind.
The Schwarczes live in a well-proportioned house not far from the peripherique, the ring road that marks the border between the city and the outlaying areas.
Hannah’s room overlooks the small but well kempt garden, something of a rarity in this part of town. But tomorrow she’ll be trade in the comfort of her room and its verdant view for the less luxurious accommodations for olim at Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu, near Beit She’an.
“First, I want to be a medic in the army,” she says.
Hannah will get no special treatment and serve the two years mandatory for women. After that she hopes to study at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, and maybe go into business later.
What makes a young adult leave her family and move to a different country? “I feel more Jewish than I do French,” she says in the Hebrew she picked up in Israel while taking participating in the MASA program. “For me, being Jewish and French does not go together.”
Most of the olim on the flight are what you might call national-religious, observant Jews who feel strongly about the State of Israel. The Schwarczes, for instance, have a framed copy of Israel’s Declaration of Independence hung above their fireplace.
“Being national-religious in France is difficult,” Diane Szpigielman says. “You have to make more sacrifices, and we want to give our children a Jewish upbringing. Our eldest daughter studied here at a university, but she couldn’t prepare properly for some exams because they were held immediately after Shabbat.”
Religion is a big reason in the olims’ decision to move, but there’s more to it than that. Hannah feels motivated by a feeling of belonging, of being deeply involved in something greater than oneself.
“Here I feel passive, like we’re watching events unfold on the television,” she explains. “But in Israel I feel active, like I’m the one on television.”
Several flights bringing thousands of new Israelis are set to arrive at Ben-Gurion Airport over the next few months.
The reporter was a guest of the Jewish Agency in Paris