The Jewish community in Lyon, France, has been paying tribute to “lone soldier” Jordan Bensemhoun, who was killed in action in Gaza on Monday.
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When the community learned of the 22-year-old Israel Defense Forces soldier’s death, it immediately called worshippers together and organized a special two-hour tribute, where three rabbis led prayers and discussed the “current situation” with the community, attended by some 300 people.
Rabbi Meir Cohen, from Shaarei Tsedek – Bensemhoun’s synagogue in Lyon – says the whole community is shattered since hearing the news. Yet the rabbi admits they hadn’t known him that long, since Bensemhoun left their community so young, making aliyah on his own at age 16.
“He left very soon after his bar mitzvah,” Cohen told Haaretz, “but he was on our minds. He was sweet and friendly." Bensemhoun had been born in the Lyon suburb of Vénissieux.
"We’re overwhelmed, because to us Jordan Bensemhoun was the ideal little boy," said Cohen. "He was always eager to learn. When he prepared for his bar mitzvah, he wanted to know more, and to teach others what he had learned.”
The family was, and still is, very discrete and quiet, always sitting at the back of the synagogue, Cohen noted.
The rabbi who helped Bensemhoun prepare for his bar mitzvah remembers a boy who always wanted to give back to others, someone who helped train younger kids.
“We talked about how things have evolved,” Cohen says of discussions this week. “About what Jordan symbolizes. To us, this young man was part of the Israeli army, and he was also a symbol and reflection of the Israeli army: an honest army.
“He left as a boy. Often when people make decisions when they’re young, they feel they have a mission to accomplish. It’s like when you feel the vocation to become a rabbi, it often happens when a person is young. Now, Jordan is accomplishing this mission up there in heaven.
“We have no choice but to believe that he’s all right now in heaven. He had the courage to protect his brothers, defend the truth,” added Rabbi Cohen.
Some 6,000 people attended Staff Sgt. Bensemhoun’s funeral in Ashkelon on Tuesday, the southern Israeli city he called home since making aliyah in 2008. He served in the Golani Brigade, but was killed Monday when the military vehicle he was traveling in was hit by an anti-tank missile.
Over the past dozen years, more French Jews have been immigrating to Israel, in many cases due to the new waves of anti-Semitism in their homeland, but also due to religious and Zionist beliefs. Others have moved, meanwhile, because of the economic situation in France. In July alone, 430 French Jews made aliyah together, many settling in Israel’s southern cities.
An estimated 5,000 Jews are expected to leave France in 2014, a record number for the approximately 500,000-member community, according to the Jewish Agency.
Next to verbal aggression and minor assaults, in recent years the Jewish community has also faced a number of violent attacks – such as the 2006 kidnapping and murder of Ilan Halimi in Paris; the 2012 killing of three children and a teacher, at a Jewish school in Toulouse, by Mohammed Merah; and the killing by a French national of four people at the Jewish Museum in Belgium. After the Brussels shooting, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls warned that France could be harboring “dozens of other Merahs.”
The community has had to face another type of violence since the start of Operation Protective Edge in Gaza: Attacks on synagogues by mobs, such as the riotous scenes on July 20 when the police had to keep hundreds of people shouting anti-Israel slogans from reaching a synagogue in Sarcelles, north of Paris.
“I never thought I’d see whole groups attack synagogues. People used to hide their anti-Semitic aggression; now they perpetrate them openly,” said Joel Mergui, president of the French Consistoire, a group representing French-Jewish interests.
Roger Cukierman, head of the Jewish umbrella group Crif, said that one of the attacks, next to the Synagogue de la Roquette in central Paris, could have ended as a pogrom.