Joseph Sitruk, France’s Chief Rabbi for Two Decades, Dies at 72

During Israel's second intifada, Sitruk advised French Jewish men to wear hats instead of skullcaps so as not to alert potential harassers.

Rabbi Joseph Sitruk at Paris' Great Synagogue in 2008.
AFP / Patrick Hertzog

Rabbi Joseph Sitruk, France’s chief rabbi for 21 years at a time when harassment of Jews escalated around the country, died Sunday. He was 72.

Sitruk led the French Jewish community, the world’s third largest after Israel's and America's, for three seven-year terms until 2008. During that period French Jews increasingly fell victim to harassment.

In 2003, during the second intifada, he advised French Jewish men to walk around in hats rather than skullcaps to lower the chances of being harassed or attacked in the streets. But he opposed government moves to restrict the use of religious symbols, whether Jewish, Muslim or of any other faith.

In 2003,when President Jacques Chirac leaned toward prohibiting Muslim women from wearing hijabs in public places, Sitruk told Le Figaro that “true secularism is expressed by the state’s neutrality toward religious pluralism. No religion should dominate another, and the role of the state is to ensure peaceful and respectful coexistence among all religions.”

He added that “often secularism is applied narrowly, such as when a Jewish student fails after not showing up for an exam on the Sabbath.”

Around a year before stepping down, Sitruk won the French Legion of Honor.

Sitruk, who was married with nine children, was chief rabbi of Strasbourg and Marseilles before being chosen France’s chief rabbi in 1987. He was born in Tunis before moving to France with his family.

In a statement, Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Shas movement celebrated the late rabbi.

Sitruk “raised the stature of French Jews, enriching the path bequeathed from one generation to another," it said in a statement. "His conduct was gentle and graceful, trying to get people to love God. He was widely connected to the authorities in his attempts to serve the needs of Jewish communities in France.”

Shas said Sitruk had been close to the late Shas spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, “whom he consulted on many issues, bringing God’s word to all corners of France.”