Masorti struggles for a foothold in France

Unlike in North America, the movement in Europe is growing.

PARIS  – At 6 p.m. on a Friday, Rabbi Yeshaya Dalsace was in the kitchen making humous.
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 tomatoes.
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 Jews.
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.
“I like this philosophy better,” said 30-year-old Devorah Cohen.
Like many 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 about.
“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 Canadian model.
“I observe kashrut, nidda, all the Halacha,” Dalsace said.
A native Frenchman, Dalsace grew up Orthodox but became disillusioned with what he said was the Consistoire’s rightward march.
“I’m closer to modern Orthodox, like most European Masorti Jews,” he said.
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.
France’s first 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 Liberal congregations.
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 leaders.
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.
While 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.
“I believe the Masorti movement has a future in France,” Krygier said. “But it will be a very big battle.”