Perhaps it was only fitting that the skies opened up in Paris on the day Mireille Knoll was laid to rest. In a March 23 murder that shocked Jews everywhere, the 85-year-old grandmother and Holocaust survivor was stabbed 11 times and left to burn to death in her home in the 11th Arrondissement. She is thought to have known the alleged murderer since he was a boy of 7.
The funeral a few days later was somber and humbling as hundreds gathered to honor the life and mourn Ms. Knoll’s horrific murder. Those in attendance included Ms. Knoll’s sons, her grandchildren, her caretaker, various officiating rabbis, French President Emmanuel Macron, Israeli Ambassador Aliza bin Noun and others. There we all stood, huddled together under a tent and umbrellas in the pouring rain.
It probably wasn’t lost on those in the crowd that Passover was just days away. Ms. Knoll had won her own liberation from the Nazis in 1942. Not much older than her alleged murderer at the time, she managed to escape the notorious Vel d’Hiv, a Nazi-directed, French round-up of more than 12,000 Jews in Paris. Families, including approximately 4,000 children, were all deported to Auschwitz and other Nazi death camps in July of ’42. Seventy-six years later, on a single, terrible early spring day, Ms. Knoll would still be unsafe in her own home.
While the French government touts a decrease in anti-Semitic attacks, the country is still home to brutally violent acts like the one against Ms. Knoll. A year ago, a 66-year-old Jewish woman named Sarah Halimi was tortured and thrown out of her third-story apartment home. The French government delayed calling Ms. Halimi’s barbaric death an act of anti-Semitism. It seems with Mireille Knoll, they are trying to learn from that mistake.
In New York several weeks ago, I marched for victims of gun violence organized by the student survivors of the horrific Parkland shooting. In Paris, I met with leaders of the French Union of Jewish Students (UEJF) who called for and helped organize a rally against hate in Paris as well in other major French cities, including Toulouse, Bordeaux, Marseille, Grenoble and Lyon. There was a Parkland-like passion about them. The March 28 rally in Paris, thanks to the coordinating efforts of people like Noémie Madar, would garner nearly 10,000 attendees in a vigil that ended in front of Ms. Knoll’s home.
Madar, a young Jewish woman from Paris, has been working as an activist countering anti-Semitism for the past five years as UEJF’s national secretary. The organization was formed in 1944 by partisans in the south of France and is currently spearheaded by young visionaries like Sasha Ghozlan, the group’s president, and Madar.
Madar admitted that these were trying times for Paris’ 400,000 Jews, and for all people of France. The news of Ms. Knoll’s murder came only a few days after an ISIS attack in a French supermarket left several killed and many wounded. For French Jews, it surely brought back memories of the brazen January 2015 attack by an ISIS sympathizer on the Hyper Cacher kosher supermarket, which killed four Jews. It was hard not to be inspired by her activism and her commitment to a prejudice-free country for her people and all people.
The night of the rally, the scene in the Jewish quarter was lively and energetic, though there were some jitters. When a plate shattered in the restaurant where we had gathered, people suddenly stopped to see what the fuss was about, but otherwise people tended to their daily lives. It reminded me of the resilient way Israelis go back to “living” after a suicide bombing.
One of those resilient souls is Tom Cohen, the visionary Parisian rabbi of Kehilat Gesher, which bills itself as “the only progressive, bilingual synagogue in the Paris region”; it offers services in English, French and Hebrew. Originally from Oregon, Rabbi Cohen moved to Paris when he fell in love with a French woman studying at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem. She was Pauline Bebe, who would in 2011 become the first woman rabbi of France; she leads Communauté Juive Libérale, a progressive Jewish congregation in Paris.
Rabbis Cohen and Bebe each have different synagogues, but their work overlaps in many ways. They’ve built a Jewish sleep-away camp together and both do outreach work. Outreach — connecting Jews to their heritage — is a word, Rabbi Cohen tells me, doesn’t exactly exist in French. They host cultural programming and the like in addition to being the parents of four children, one of whom has made aliyah, who came home for the seders.
Rabbi Cohen’s grandparents left Ireland in 1904 when the only pogrom hit their tiny Jewish community in Limerick. All 200 Jews left then for New York. Listening to Rabbi Cohen describe the political and religious landscape of Paris today was eye-opening. The rabbi’s community in the 17th district — “our Upper West Side,” as he calls it — is alive, multi-generational and crosses the Ashkenazi/Sephardi divide that characterized many French synagogues.
Asked what he makes of the anti-Semitic acts, given the vibrant life he described, he explained that there has been a significant decline in anti-Jewish crime in the past few years, but when it does occur it has been brutal and fatal. His own congregant was a victim of a terrorist attack in a museum not too long ago. Rabbi Bebe’s synagogue is right near the offices of Charlie Hebdo.
Rabbi Cohen explained that after the Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Cacher attacks, he and his fellow rabbis made an “error” in publicly partnering with imams of local Muslim communities. One such imam became labeled by neighboring fundamentalists as “the imam of the Jews.” That imam now walks around Paris with four bodyguards. Today, he continued, it is different as imams and priests will meet in churches and rabbis come in “through the back door.”
Aside from living under the threat of imminent terror (though there has been an uptick in anti-Semitic incidents in the U.S. in the last two years), I was struck by the similarities of our work: teaching young Jews, meeting families trying to make meaning out of their ancient heritage.
Rabbi Cohen and I met thanks to a community member of mine from New York, Emilie Rose. Rose, a Jewish Parisian in her 20s based in New York, spotted our Base group marching and singing in the Women’s March one year ago, and she was there by herself in a new city. Since that march, she has joined our community for Shabbat and holidays. And on the 28th, I got to march with Emilie’s mother in Paris to protest anti-Semitism and Ms. Knoll’s murder.
At the Bagneux cemetery outside Paris, in offering condolences to Noa Goldfarb, Ms. Knoll’s granddaughter, who lives in Herzliya, Israel, I saw a peer. I told her and her father and uncle how I came on behalf of Jews everywhere to say we are with you and offer the traditional prayer, “Hamakom yinachem” (“May ‘The Place’ comfort you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem”).
At the ceremony’s close, I helped carry the coffin of Ms. Knoll to her grave, as hundreds lined up to fulfill the sacred commandment of burial. As a grandchild of Holocaust refugees, I thought of her life and, of course, her senseless death and the anti-Semitism facing France’s Jews. And with boots caked in mud as the rain poured down, I also thought of the larger Jewish community assembled there and beyond — rabbis, activists and all the others who paint the Paris they call home with spiritual defiance amid dreams of tolerance, coexistence and freedom from hate. Passover was drawing near.
Rabbi Avram Mlotek is co-founder of Base, a home-based Hillel project aimed at young Jews.