French Expat Jews: So Far, So Near
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French Expat Jews: So Far, So Near

Many here urging relatives back home to leave. ‘What are you waiting for?’

For Stella Amar-Cohen, a Jew from western France who has lived in Manhattan for 10 years, the most recent day of horror for French Jewry began before dawn last Friday.

Jetlagged from a recent trip to relatives back in her homeland and in Israel, she was up by 5 a.m. She checked Facebook and other social media, a common point of connection for the several hundred French Jews here and in France, and discovered the bare facts of the erev-Shabbat act of terrorism — an unknown number of gunmen had taken an unknown number of hostages at Hyper Cacher, a popular kosher supermarket in eastern Paris.

Between calls and texts to relatives and friends in France, and updates every few minutes on French-language media sites, she checked the latest news throughout the day — by about 2:30 p.m. she’d learn the details of who was safe and who was dead.

In shul the next day, at the West Side Sephardic Synagogue, which has a large number of Jews with roots in France, “everyone was sad, in shock and upset,” Amar-Cohen said.

New York’s community of French Jews has become increasingly vocal in the wake of last week’s terrorist attack. Most were in touch with Jews still living in France, and many helped organize a memorial service Sunday night on the Upper West Side.

Myriam Rebibo, who moved here from a southeastern suburb of Paris 10 years ago, found out about the hostage-taking a few hours later on Friday, also via Facebook. By then, “nothing was confirmed.” No details were available about the anti-Semitic terrorism that followed by two days the fatal shootings at the Charlie Hebdo satirical weekly newspaper in the French capital.

Like Amar-Cohen, Rebibo lives on the Upper West Side. Like Amar-Cohen, she called her kin in France immediately. She told them to leave France. “Absolutely.” For Israel or the United States, “anywhere” they will be safer as Jews. “We were already telling them to leave,” following a few decades of anti-Semitic attacks in France, usually committed by Muslim Arabs whose families come from northern Africa.

Ari Afilalo, a native of Paris who came to the nearly U.S. three decades ago, received an email Friday at 7 a.m. from his brother Lionel, who works near the supermarket. “We have to leave France quickly,” Lionel wrote — their mother also lives in Paris.

“The rest of the day we were glued to the news,” mainly to a French TV station, Afilalo said. “It was so tense — rumors, conflicting reports.” The atmosphere in the city reminded him of the days after 9/11, he said.

The events that followed last week’s hostage-taking at Hyper Cacher — including an evening of solidarity at Lincoln Square Synagogue and expressions of support from a wide range of French political and Islamic leaders — has both coalesced the already close-knit group of French-Jewish expatriates in the Greater New York area, and brought them an unprecedented amount of attention.

“It’s a sad way [for outsiders] to become aware” of French Jews here who are their neighbors, said Brigitte Dayan, a journalist with Moroccan Jewish roots who moved to Manhattan from Chicago a dozen years ago and is knowledgeable about the French Jewish community.

At the packed Lincoln Square event, “people were comparing stories” of how they discovered the grim news, of how they kept in touch with people back home, of their own visits to the kosher supermarket. “Everyone has a connection,” everyone has shopped there or know someone who still does, Dayan said.

While no one keeps track of the exact number of French Jews who live here — they usually are considered a subgroup of Sephardic Jews with roots in northern Africa — anecdotal evidence suggests that the community has at least hundreds of Jewish families and is growing rapidly.

The Upper West Side has become a hub of transplanted French Jewry. Sizable numbers of French Jews also live in Great Neck, L.I.; and in Englewood, N.J. Most work in finance. They are “hardworking” but not always wealthy; “traditional if not Orthodox,” Dayan said. They’re mostly singles who came here for an education or a job, or young families.

On the Upper West Side alone, the number of synagogues with a sizable number of French Jews on the membership rolls has risen to three, from a single Shabbat-only minyan two decades ago. Now there are lectures and social activities geared towards French-speaking Jews, and the establishment of French soccer league in the summer.

The number of French Jews in New York has risen steadily over the last two decades, as rising anti-Semitism has caused the country’s 500,000-member Jewish community to feel increasingly unsafe, Dayan said.

“Jewish life in Paris is becoming increasingly difficult,” she said.

In the U.S., especially in the New York City area, where open expression of one’s Jewish identity and where resources like kosher food and Jewish classes are readily available, “the ease of Jewish life” makes this country increasingly attractive, she said.

At the West Side Sephardic Synagogue, “the mood … was extremely somber on Shabbat morning,” Dayan said. “We were shocked, but many of us were not surprised.”

French Jews are familiar with the harassment on the street and in the subway system, the rapes and murders, the terrorist attack at a Jewish school in Toulouse three years ago that killed a rabbi and three students. “It’s becoming more and more frequent,” Rebibo said.

Asked what she believes the future holds for Jews in France, Dayan said, “It’s at a crossroads now.” More French Jews than ever — though they are still loyal patriots, she stresses — are thinking of leaving. “Is it going to end?” she said.

French aliyah is clearly increasing; an aliyah fair in Paris on Sunday drew more than 500 people and some 7,000 French Jews immigrated to Israel last year, the most in recent years.

Dayan and other French Jews here interviewed by The Jewish Week praised the government’s reaction to the latest terrorism attacks: President Francois Hollande’s declaration that the Hyper Cacher attack was clearly an act of anti-Semitism and his appearance at the Great Synagogue of Paris; the statement by Prime Minister Manuel Valls that wide-scale emigration of French Jews would diminish the character of the French Republic; the assigning of 5,000 French police to protect Jewish schools.

Are these demonstrations of support too little too late? Do large numbers of French Jews fail to see a future there?

It’s too early to give a firm answer, Dayan said, adding, “I don’t think it’s too late.” But she attributed the recent increase in aliyah to the increase last year in anti-Semitic attacks spurred by Israel’s war in Gaza.

French Jews are also immigrating elsewhere. There’s a new French-language Shabbat service at St. John’s Wood Synagogue in London, and reports of an increase of French Jews in Montreal.

“The bottom line is, do you leave France?” Afilalo said. He thinks his brother will end up in Israel. “The young people will all leave. They won’t stay,” he said.

Since last week’s killings at Hyper Cacher, Rebibo has urged her French relatives leave the country.

“What are you waiting for?” she said she asks them. “Are you waiting to die?”

steve@jewishweek.org

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