Text size

FRANCE - In the corridors of the schools of the ultra-Orthodox Otzar Hatorah network in Creteil, a suburb of southeastern Paris, among maps of the biblical Land of Israel and pictures of rabbis, several newspaper pages mounted on the wall list the achievements of French schools in the 2006 matriculation exams. Otzar Hatorah Banot, the girls' school, with 100 percent success, and Otzar Hatorah Banim, the boys' school, with 90 percent success, are underlined in thick marker. The precise ranking is less interesting than the very fact that the ultra-Orthodox school is publicizing its students' achievements in secular fields.

It is hard to apply the usual Israeli definitions to the French Otzar Hatorah network. Are these ultra-Orthodox schools? The answer is not unequivocal. The principals define themselves as such, but say that only some of the students are observant. The approach to Jewish studies is entirely Orthodox, without any recognition of other interpretations, but the 10 hours a week devoted to Jewish subjects do not cut into the official French curriculum, and the desire to excel in general studies, as demonstrated by the pictures in the corridors, filters down clearly to the students.

Moreover, although the schools insist that the girls wear skirts that reach far below their knees and that the boys wear skullcaps throughout the school day, the educators don't get upset, and certainly don't comment, when a student removes his skullcap when he leaves the school. Apparently, as opposed to the strict approach at some of Israel's state religious schools, and perhaps in most of its ultra-Orthodox institutions, here in France the outlook is more relaxed, more realistic.

"I don't ask the girls if they wear pants in the evening, that's not my business," says the school's principal, Rabbi Shimon Marciano. "I'm not God's policeman, he has enough policemen. I'm only responsible for what happens in the school."

According to the most recent survey by Dr. Eric Cohen of the Bar-Ilan University School of Education, about 30,000 children aged 3-17 are studying in Jewish day schools in France, an increase of almost 20 percent since five years ago. And still, this is a minority of about 30 percent (another 30 percent attend non-Jewish private schools, and some 40 percent study in state schools). Additional statistics from 2005 reveal that Otzar Hatorah is the second largest education network after Chabad. Otzar Hatorah has about 4,000 students in some 15 schools, almost all of them in Paris and the suburbs. Eighteen percent of the students attending Jewish schools study in Creteil.

School on the roof

The neighborhood does not appear to be well-off. The infrastructure, the building, the classrooms and the school yard are not luxurious. In order to reach the boys' school, for example, you have to find a side exit from the Metro station and climb four flights through the parking lot, until you reach the roof, which is where the school operates. The kindergarten and primary school pupils study on the first floor. Class size is similar to that in Israel: about 30 students per class. Due to the lack of space, the central auditorium serves as both a prayer room and a dining room. The girls' school is a five-minute walk from there. The location is slightly better - among huge warehouses and car salesrooms. The tuition at the schools is 1,500-2,000 euros a year, as compared to 3,000 euros in other Jewish schools. The school has about 1,400 students in all, from kindergarten through 12th grade.

At the entrance to the boys school hangs a large poster with pictures of Israeli rabbis. The vast majority of the students at Otzar Hatorah, like the administration and the teaching staff, are of Mizrahi origin, members of the second generation of North African Jews who immigrated to France. But the poster portrays mainly Ashkenazi rabbis: Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, Aharon Leib Steinman, Moshe Shmuel Shapira, Nissim Karelitz, Chaim Kanievsky and others. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef is the exception. "As opposed to in Israel, it is not important to us who is Ashkenazi and who is Sephardi. They're all Jews. The greatest success of French Jewry is the blurring of the differences," says the principal of the boys school, Rabbi Avraham Elimelekh. That is the usual answer here, almost the official version. However, later on he admits that when a question related to halakha (Jewish law) arises, for example regarding boys and girls studying together, "we ask an Ashkenazi rabbi."

The Otzar Hatorah network was established in France after World War II, but its historical roots, explains Dr. Yaakov Lupo of the Floersheimer Institute for Policy Studies in Jerusalem, can be found at the beginning of the 20th century in Morocco, in the struggle led by the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox community against the secular Alliance educational network. After the Holocaust, says Lupo, the ultra-Orthodox organizations sent thousands of outstanding Moroccan students to yeshivas in Europe and the United States. He says that for the ultra-Orthodox, this was both rescue from secularism and rehabilitation for the yeshiva world destroyed in the Holocaust.

Thus, an ideological battle and a sense of general Jewish solidarity was combined with practical, even utilitarian considerations. "For 40 years, Otzar Hatorah built an infrastructure of schools, and toward the end of the 1980s, as a result of the disappointment with the public school system and in light of the desire among the parents' generation for a return to Jewish tradition, the network was able to absorb new students with relative ease. The shortage of available places in the other, less Orthodox schools contributed to the rise of Otzar Hatorah," says Lupo.

Sometimes it seems that Otzar Hatorah's opposition to the secular viewpoint that was and still is represented by Alliance continues to this day, some 100 years after the beginning of the battle against secular education. At least in terms of scope, the ultra-Orthodox side is clearly winning. There are four Alliance schools in France, two of them in Paris, with a total of 1,200 students. "Apparently Alliance's solution doesn't satisfy the parents," says Elimelekh in an attempt to explain the differences between the two approaches. "Our students behave politely even in the street, and are aware of their commitment to the Torah. The students at Alliance live as people do in society as a whole. Here you won't find earrings or torn pants. We have inculcated other values of Judaism, and the parents see the influence."

Elimelekh emphasizes that his students have different levels of religious observance, and some can be seen hastening to don a skullcap when they notice teachers passing in the hallway. At the non-kosher store in the nearby Metro station, one can see students buying food after school. Some of them say their main consideration for studying at the ultra-Orthodox school was geographical rather than ideological proximity. As far as the girls are concerned, aside for the length of their skirts, the dress code at both school networks is almost identical. Moreover, even if at Otzar Hatorah the students receive a few more hours of Jewish study, the differences aren't that great. Even Alliance, the ostensible bastion of secular Judaism, devotes some eight hours a week to Bible, Talmud and Jewish history.

"The differences in the degree of religious observance among the students and their families can be found mainly in the minds of the principals," explains a source who is well-acquainted with the Jewish school system in France. "The students at Otzar Hatorah and at Alliance actually come from similar backgrounds: This is a traditional community that for the most part observes kashrut, recites Kiddush on Friday night and occasionally attends synagogue. However, as opposed to Alliance, the Otzar Hatorah administration would like its schools to be more ultra-Orthodox. But the community is not in favor of that. These are parents who want to preserve the Jewish tradition but not at the cost of shutting themselves off from the outside world. There is constant give-and-take between the parents and the administration over the character of the school."

Marciano agrees. "Ideologically speaking, there are no compromises at the school, and halakha is of great importance. But my student population is close to the National Religious Party," he says. "We accept anyone who wants to study here, even if the parents work on Shabbat, and even if I doubt they keep a kosher home. What will I gain if I throw out girls who wear pants or dance with boys in the evening? They'll just go to non-Jewish schools."

The girls study from 8:45 A.M. to 5 P.M., with a short break for lunch. Prayers are not obligatory. Only about one-third of the girls come early in order to pray. Unlike as in Israel, there is tight government supervision here: the Otzar Hatorah schools and similar institutions cannot deviate from the official curriculum's regulations on content or number of study hours. In exchange, the state pays the salaries of teachers of secular subjects, including Hebrew. A violation could cause this funding to be revoked.

Apparently, the French Education Ministry's rules are observed here not only due to the fear of economic sanctions, but because they are an expression of the dialogue between the administration and the parents. "The parents are seeking primarily a school with high scores," Marciano says. "If there were good public institutions in the area, I wouldn't have so many students. It's our responsibility to give them the same level of studies that they would receive in the public school system, if not better. Thank God we do not lack for students."

On to college

Levana Lucaget, an 11th-grader, has studied at three Jewish educational institutions: She started out at the traditional Yavneh school and transferred to an ultra-Orthodox school, where she studied until a year ago. "I decided to transfer to Otzar Hatorah because the ultra-Orthodox school offers no matriculation exams in the sciences," she says. "There may be more religious activity there, but here I found a combination of high-level secular studies and a Jewish education. The matriculation exams are a springboard to success in the world; it's the obligatory social route."

In the teachers' lounge, one of the teachers is preparing a history lesson about the French Revolution, which will cover the Emancipation introduced several years later by Napoleon. The possible conflict between secular studies and more Orthodox viewpoints doesn't upset anyone here, at least not openly. "Of course the Torah is right, but we have to know about evolution or the Emancipation for the matriculation exams. That's what they expect us to write about for the exam; that doesn't mean that we believe in it," says one of the students.

After finishing school at Otzar Hatorah, Lucaget plans to study for another year in Israel. She is thinking of studying medicine, but says that "it's hard to combine that with a religious life. I haven't yet decided exactly what I'll study, but I'll definitely go on to university."

Another student has begun to look into studying math, and her friend adds that she will probably study business administration. "Almost all the students go on to higher learning, in Israel or in France," adds Marciano.

The comparison to the situation in Israel is inevitable, and the point of reference of the principals in Otzar Hatorah, it should be recalled, is ultra-Orthodox society, not the religious school system. "It's the fault of the ultra-Orthodox leaders who limit participation in the work force, and at most allow the girls to attend teachers seminaries," says Marciano, explaining the difference between France and Israel. "I have a different opinion. The great rabbis want the husband to be a yeshiva student, so at least let the woman earn a living. That's why they have to continue studying even after high school, in suitable institutions. I also prefer a rosh yeshiva [yeshiva head] who has a matriculation certificate and knows what's going on in the world. Something different could have been done in Israel, but the Ashkenazim are close-minded, and they influence the Sephardim. A few years ago someone suggested opening an Otzar Hatorah-style school in Israel. I said that within a day, they would stone me and burn down the school."

This is the third article in a series on Jewish education in the Diaspora. The first two appeared in the Shavuot supplement.