Is it time to send overseas Jewish communities a different message?

Often when we think about a Jewish community in Paris, Kiev, Kishinev or Caracas the first thing that comes to our mind is that they are a Jewish community at risk and should pack their bags.

Paris, France. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Paris, France.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
It is a Sunday morning at the Jewish Community Center of Kishinev, Moldova. Local Jewish teenagers are studying the book of Genesis 1:27: “And God created man in His image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.” They are discussing the text, debating different interpretations and most of all adding their own point of view, their own voice to Jewish texts. At the same time, teenagers in Caracas, Venezuela and Emek Hefer, Israel are doing the same.
Following their study sessions, they are translating what they have learned into artistic manifestations.
In Emek Hefer and Caracas via music and in Kishinev via music, dance and visual arts. Next year, teens from the JCC of the Palisades in New Jersey will join this journey as well. During this process the teenagers not only study and interact at their local JCC but also connect with their peers in other Jewish communities. During the first week of November 2015, they are going to hold a joint seminar in Israel and preform in front of hundreds of Jewish leaders in Jerusalem.
Often when we think about a Jewish community in Paris, Kiev, Kishinev or Caracas the first thing that comes to our mind is that they are a Jewish community at risk and should pack their bags and leave.
From the media reports, from anti-Semitic surveys and accounts, from several fatal incidents that have occurred in some of these cities, we assume that they live in an unbearable situation and that there is no future for them in their home communities. Yet, when we delve more deeply into their lives, when we speak to them, when we visit them, we find a more complicated picture. Jews in overseas communities for the most part feel that they are part of the country and the culture they live in. They feel that their Judaism can be integrated with their life as citizens in their home countries. In some countries, recent political and social changes threaten the fabric of their societies. Yet, most opt to continue their lives in their home countries and strive to grapple, together with their non-Jewish peers, with the challenges their countries face.
One example is France. No one can deny the magnitude of the recent terrorist attacks in France or the threat they pose to the delicate fabric of French society and to the security of Jews and Jewish institutions.
Yet, the calls for French Jews to pack their bags and make aliya were self-defeating.
“All rights to Jews as citizens, no rights to Judaism as a nation” was the basic modus vivendi of French Jewry from the time of the French revolution. “Laïcité” was the main principle and it meant a secular society, a total separation of church and state. Communitarianism, belonging to a community, was considered a dirty word.
For a Jewish community dating back to Roman times that was able to grow and prosper, adhering to the notion of full integration into French society was crucial.
World War II shattered that ideal and shook the Jewish community.
Following the war, the Jewish Federation of France (FSJU) was established – the first institution to include the word “Jewish” in its title. Then came large waves of immigration from North Africa, absorbing Jews who used to live in cohesive communities and were more traditional and observant.
They had to adapt to the general model and therefore developed their own interpretations. For example, they included (Orthodox) synagogues in state-sponsored Jewish Cultural/Community Centers. A phenomenon that is quite unique in the world. At the same time, their Cultural/ Community Centers are open to the general public and attract the non-Jewish population as well.
France has always welcomed foreigners into its midst – except for the four years of the Vichy regime – but probably did not expect an approximately six-million- strong Muslim minority, that hasn’t integrated fully into French society. That “time bomb” is now showing signs of explosion and it is clear that major efforts by the government and society need to take place to confront the threat it poses.
For several years now, incidents of anti-Semitism and terrorism have challenged the old models of the Jewish community and have forced the community – numbering approximately 500,000 – to turn inward. The network of Jewish schools has expanded to absorb a growing number of students while synagogues and community centers are offering a wider array of programs. The close relationship with Israel and the “love without conditions” approach is still very prominent. Several thousand people opted to make aliya or leave to other countries, but the majority of Jews in France, for various reasons, are there to stay.
JCCs in France and elsewhere are therefore the place to develop a positive Jewish identity. An identity of confidence and reassurance.
A place to combat anti-Semitism by dialogue with non-Jews, by opening doors and doorways. A place to grapple with the challenges facing wider society and adding the Jewish voice to this dialogue.
Supporting these communities, acknowledging their success, admiring their perseverance and hoping for a brighter future for them is more helpful during these trying times.
The author is executive director of JCC Global, an umbrella organization of more than 1,000 JCCs that is holding its 9th World Conference in Jerusalem, November 1-6.