France has been inhospitable to its Jewish population in recent years. Ten years ago an Islamist extremist gunned down three people at a Jewish school in Toulouse. Over the ensuing decade, hundreds more have been killed by terrorists, a situation leading French president Emmanuel Macron to appeal to the French people themselves to stem the threat.
Religious Jews took to not wearing the distinguishing paraphernalia of their faith in public—the skullcap, or kippah. Stars of David and Hebrew lettering no longer distinguished Jewish buildings and houses of worship, with police cars and surveillance equipment now the markers of choice.
With the statistics of antisemitic hate crimes soaring from the dozens to the hundreds, an exodus has taken place in recent years, with about 50,000 French Jews departing for Israel alone and the Jewish population of France declining to some 450,000 from a high in the 1970s of about 530,000.
So what does one do in this atmosphere of angst and existential threat toward the Jewish community, when so many are electing to leave? When to be identified as a Jew is to put a target on one’s back, and when discretion and subtlety would appear to be the proper tactic? One erects a $17 million sprawling in-your-face six-story 54,000 square foot Jewish community center. And in case one fails to notice it at first glance, the European Jewish Center—for that is what it’s called—features 24 rectangular windows fitted with gold-colored slats running down the entire structure’s length.
The Center, which elicited open-mouthed expressions of awe when it first opened in 2019, only to have the pandemic delay its use, has recently become fully functional, its very existence sending a message of, “We’re here. We’re vibrant. We’re not going anywhere. Deal with it.”
“The situation is clear and horrible,” Joel Mergui, the president of the Paris branch of the Consistoire Jewish community group and a major force in making the center happen, told attendees at the 2019 inaugural, also attended by President Macron. Thousands of Jews chose to leave some areas, some cities, some European countries, afraid of seeing another bloodbath. No one has the right to judge them. In this context, we must build.”
And build they did.
Overlooking Paris’ Jerusalem Square—so named in preparation for the center’s opening and in defiance of protests by pro-Palestinian groups—the new building includes event halls used for bar mitzvahs and weddings, spacious auditoriums, a gym, a kosher kitchen that does catering, office spaces, a spacious and secure yard for outdoor activities and an Orthodox synagogue with 600 seats. There are about 10 events a week, including lectures by well-known Jewish speakers on various subjects related to Judaism. One, for example, involved a prominent Jewish surgeon talking about medicine as described in the Talmud.
So far the Center has been busy. There is the expected nervousness on the part of those who run it and those who attend, but as Joseph Madar, a French Jew visiting the place for the first time said, the Center “is meaningful on the symbolic level to the French Jewish community even just as a monument, even if it were absolutely empty. The fact that it’s bustling is a true testament to the community’s strength.”
Or as Mergui observed, “Are we on the eve of a new exodus, or of a belated reconquest of the lost territories [of the French Republic]? I have asked myself this since I took office, and I still do. But no one but us can decide our fate.”
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