Israel’s ‘mini-Riviera’

French olim find their Netanya home.

A gathering held in Netanya’s Great Synagogue last month in solidarity with the French Jewish community after the Hyper Cacher attack. (photo credit: THE JEWISH AGENCY)
A gathering held in Netanya’s Great Synagogue last month in solidarity with the French Jewish community after the Hyper Cacher attack.
(photo credit: THE JEWISH AGENCY)
T he city of Netanya lowered its flags in honor of the four men murdered recently at Paris’s Hyper Cacher kosher supermarket. The families of Yohan Cohen, Yoav Hattab, Philippe Braham and Francois-Michel Saada brought them to be buried in Jerusalem’s Har Hamenuhot cemetery, with Cohen’s family spending the seven days of the shiva mourning period in Netanya.
This latest act of anti-Semitism followed numerous attacks in France, both towards Jews and those who spoke their minds and stood for justice. To name a few acts of violence: On January 21, 2006, Ilan Halimi was abducted by a group called the Gang of Barbarians, tortured over a period of three weeks and left to die. His parents reburied his body on Har Hamenuhot, and a garden was named after him in the Jerusalem Forest.
This past July 15, a synagogue on Rue de la Roquette in Paris was surrounded by an angry mob on Bastille Day, shouting racist slogans while waving Hamas and Hezbollah flags. Members of the congregation who were inside had to be rescued and led to safety.
Last month, there were three violent incidents in Paris. In addition to the Hyper Cacher attack, policewoman Clarissa Jean-Philippe was shot and killed, and 12 were murdered in the massacre at satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.
“We have to address these tragedies and urge our fellow Jews to make aliya and come to Israel alive and well,” was the message to hundreds of participants and world Jewry at the gathering held in Netanya’s Great Synagogue last month. The speakers, Mayor Miriam Fierberg–Ikar, Jerusalem’s Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Moshe Amar and numerous government, city and rabbinic dignitaries, all delivered the message: “We are waiting for you to come home.”
In fact, 2014 was a grand year for aliya. Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky recently remarked that 2014 was the first year there were more immigrants from the free world than elsewhere. As recorded by the Immigrant Absorption Ministry, 26,678 people left their various countries of origin and chose Israel as their new home.
Aliya from France led the numbers, with an enthusiastic throng of 6,674 persons – a 95-percent increase from 2013 figures. Almost a third of the new olim from France chose Netanya as their new place of residence, followed by Tel Aviv-Jaffa at 17.9%, Jerusalem, Ashdod and Ra’anana.
“Before the 2013-14 aliya, Netanya already had a large French-speaking community,” says Freddo Pachta, Netanya coordinator of French aliya at the Immigrant Absorption Ministry. “Many of the recent olim from France have family and friends who settled here previously, which makes this city a magnet for the French, family-centered community.”
Over the years, the ministry’s Netanya branch has had a great deal of experience in helping new olim make the transition to their new home.
From a sleepy little village with sand for sidewalks and barely 9,000 residents in the 1950s, Netanya’s population has grown with every wave of aliya. Today, that number has swelled to over 200,000 residents, and the municipality is readying itself for more. A construction boom is sweeping the city, as new apartment buildings are going up along the seashore as well as in suburban areas; schools are developing new programs and teachers are receiving training in how to best educate their new pupils from France.
The French are drawn to Netanya’s long stretch of beautiful beaches, numerous cafes and ambiance of a “mini-Riviera.” In the summer months and holiday periods, its streets have long been alive with the sounds of French; today, the city is experiencing a different, quieter saturation. Now, one hears more French in the residential neighborhoods and parks, between children coming home from school. The Jews of France have come to stay.
Pachta points out that Jews from France do not come with tears, but with pride to be in the Jewish state. They are fiercely Zionistic and supportive of the IDF. Many have made aliya part of their life plan; buying an apartment in Israel for later in life has been an accepted goal. Yet anti-Semitism spouted by pro-Palestinians on the Left and neo-Nazis on the Right, combined with a stagnant French economy, has created the perfect storm; as violent incidents increase, the Jews of France are making plans to come to Israel sooner rather than later.
When asked if there is anything different about the latest aliya from France, Pachta responds with a big smile. “This aliya is indeed different – they come with pride in their heritage and the Jewish state.
Their attitude is to take a catastrophe and turn it into something good. The biggest change is that there are many more young, single people, and couples with young children. The ministry is developing specific programs to support and meet their needs.”
PLANS FOR children take priority. Therefore, in early childhood education, only French or both Hebrew and French are spoken. By the time the children reach primary school, there is an option for ulpan in the morning, plus individual assistance every day after school. High-school students have the option of attending ulpan during the school day, plus 20 hours of schoolwork assistance per week.
Moreover, in primary and high schools, based on the enrollment of French children, there is the option for full-time French-speaking coordinators employed by the Education Ministry, to solve problems as they arise and liaise between schoolchildren and their families. The ministry has also designed courses to educate teachers about the history, lives and customs of French Jewry.
Over 90% of these children went to private Jewish day schools in France, but there were stringencies imposed by the French government. “French Jews have a strong sense of emuna [religious belief] and a deep connection to Judaism,” explains Pachta.
“However, in France it is forbidden to display outward religious symbols [in public], and what might be thought of in Israel as ignorance of tradition or neglect is seeing only a part of the picture.
“Strong inner belief is there,” emphasizes Pachta, “though the outward signs might not be visible right away. We have to prepare teachers as well as pupils. ” Toward this end, Oshrat Hadad of the Immigrant Absorption Ministry notes that consultants are in constant contact with principals, mediators, psychologists and social workers who speak French, to be aware of and involved in the various problems that may overwhelm immigrant children.
The adult members of the French aliya receive the same basket of assistance from the government as other olim. Nevertheless, the ministry has designed the new France First program to make the absorption process easier. French-speaking advisers are available in each city to assist olim in filling out paperwork, navigating bureaucracy and finding housing and suitable education. Government websites have been translated into French, and there is a movement to pass new legislation to grant increased recognition of degrees from other countries.
“The number of olim from France is going to grow,” stresses Pachta, “and we have to be ready.” He expects the 2015 figure to increase significantly, and would not be surprised if it reaches 10,000 or beyond.
Aliya education in France is in full swing. Aliya preparation meetings used to take place once a month, then it was once a week and now, due to increased demand, they take place twice a day.
Though they are leaving France because of very difficult and outright anti-Semitic incidents, Pachta notes that the French bring with them a special “joie de vivre that is part of their nature, which they are using to meet the challenges of aliya.”
They also are believers in support systems. In addition to friends and family, the French in Israel have established the privately funded UNIFAN – Association of Immigrants from France and North Africa, comprised of French volunteers who provide aid to new olim.
Odette Yasinsky, an adviser at UNIFAN’s Netanya branch, says she is proud of France’s olim, who come with marvelous determination and are not afraid of war. Despite Operation Protective Edge, “there were no cancellations over the summer.”
“We [UNIFAN volunteers] are there to help the French olim, [some of whom] cannot even pick up a telephone to ask for help. We take new olim to the various offices and help fill out the seemingly endless paperwork. We also provide a base of the familiar – a French library, bridge games and lectures – while helping the new immigrant get acquainted with a new country.”
This past August, the organization sponsored an employment fair in Netanya’s Independence Square. “Many connections were made and new olim found work,” Yasinsky affirms. “The fair was a success for employers and job-seekers.”
PACHTA ESTIMATES that approximately 80% of the olim who came in 2013-14 are employed.
“Many start working part-time at call centers where they can use their French. At the same time, these people are going to ulpan and learning to speak Hebrew, which is their biggest challenge. Olim in professions such as medicine and law have already taken qualifying tests and have passed.”
The government is also offering assistance to olim who have the skills to establish their own businesses. Experienced individuals are opening French patisseries, clothing stores, beauty salons and jewelry shops.
“The French are comfortable in Netanya,” says Esther Cohen, who came to the city with her late husband and children 43 years ago from Marseilles.
“Netanya reminds my generation – which grew up in Morocco, Tunisia and Algiers – of the climate and appearance of North Africa. We were part of a homogeneous, masorati [traditional] Jewish population with our eyes toward Israel. I remember my grandmother saying to us in Arabic each year after Yom Kippur, ‘Next year in Jerusalem.’ “When we moved from Tunis to France, the French population was at first very accepting and accommodating. Slowly, the Jewish community began assimilating, losing our traditions and marrying outside our faith. My husband, a lawyer, was intent on making aliya, and in 1972 we came with our children. I remember the Yom Kippur War and the men running to buses – some never returning.
“Regardless, I never look back. My children, who had a very difficult time getting used to Israel, say we did the right thing by making aliya – for them and their children, it is a blessing. I wish the new olim from France the same.
“They come to Israel with spirit and determination, even though they left a France where the levels of assimilation and incidents of violent anti- Semitism occur as if it was 1933,” says Cohen.
“In my opinion, the time for Jews living in France is over. In the blood of Jews from France is Zionism, and love of the Land of Israel.
“They do not feel that they are escaping – rather, they are coming home to Israel.”