Redefining French Jewry

Although enrollment at French Jewish schools is on the rise, an equal number of pupils attend non-Jewish private schools. Vive la difference.

FRANCE - During the past five years, the population of students at France's Jewish schools has increased by about 5,000. It now stands at 30,000 students, aged three through 17. Despite this increase, a study carried out at the beginning of the year by Dr. Erik Cohen of Bar-Ilan University found that for the first time the proportion of students who attend Jewish educational institutions (30 percent) is similar to the proportion that chooses non-Jewish private schools. The research stirred up a minor storm in the Jewish community in France.

Most non-Jewish, private schools are affiliated with Catholic associations and organizations. Cohen tells of one such school in Paris where 180 of the 1,100 students are Jewish. "In fact these educational settings compete with the Jewish schools: They offer high standards of studies and they tend to be cheaper than their Jewish counterparts," explains Dr. Cohen. "The Jewish students are given an exemption from the Catholic prayers and are excused from classes on major holidays. In terms of observing kashrut, it is possible to eat fish or vegetarian food during lunchtime."

The fact that 60 percent of Jewish students attend private schools - both Jewish and non-Jewish - as compared to a national average of 20 percent, indicates dissatisfaction with the public education system, especially in the context of the increasingly anti-Semitic atmosphere, evident since the outbreak of the second intifada. It appears that the French Jewish community is turning inward. "Two kinds of students choose to study at Jewish schools," says a source in the Jewish education system in Paris. "There are those who do so in order to be in a Jewish setting, and there are those who do so in order not to attend a public institution."

However, says Dr. Cohen, this is not necessarily a sign of turning inward. "This is a defensive reaction, which testifies that the public schools have become problematic for Jewish students and parents," he explains.

A visit to three Jewish schools in the Paris area reveals the extent to which relations with the French surroundings are fraught. The responses on the situation differ according to the nature of the school: The more Orthodox the educational establishment, the stronger the statements. "It is important to learn among Jews to escape assimilation with the gentiles," says Alisson Lafond, an 11th-grader at the Otzar Hatorah girls' school in the Paris suburb of Creteil (which is also home to a large Muslim population). "First of all it is necessary to defend Jewish values and our security, because of the attacks on Jews in the public schools."

Her friend, Levana Losaje, does assert "it is important to meet people who are different from us," but she immediately adds "it is necessary to establish a clear boundary and not be too open. I am secure in my religious belief, but conversations between a Jew and a non-Jew are liable to undermine some of the girls' confidence. After all, it's the gentiles' aim to make us like them. Therefore there's no need to seek out such situations. We have non-Jewish teachers at the school. The encounter with them is enough."

At less Orthodox schools, like Yabne and Alliance, the picture is somewhat different. Here, too, there are stories of harassment and the unpleasant atmosphere in the public school system, but at least there is a desire among some of the students to break out of the protective bubble that envelops them. "We are immersed in a context of Jewishness from 8 in the morning until 6 or 7 in the evening. Afterward it's difficult to go out and meet with non-Jews - there simply is no time left," says Marinne Azougy, an 11th grader at Yabne. "We learn a lot here about Judaism, but not enough about Christianity and Islam. I feel we lack meetings with non-Jewish students."

A fellow 11th grader, Yona Ovadia, adds: "Starting at the age of three we are only in a Jewish framework. After the baccalaureate exams most of the students start studying at a university and all of a sudden they discover a new world. Problems start. Sometimes we develop the perception that non-Jews are anti-Semites, only because we don't know them well enough."

Between the first round and the second round of the French presidential elections, the students at the Alliance school in Paris hung up a large poster that presented the two main candidates, Nicolas Sarkozy and Segolene Royal. "You won't find posters like that at Otzar Hatorah," says the principal, Michele Sarrabia.

"The founders of Alliance believed in a single basis for Judaism and the republic, that it is possible to be both Jewish and French. The parents who send their children here want exactly the same thing. There has to be congruence between the parents' outlook and the spirit of the school. I do not think this happens at the Otzar Hatorah schools: They prefer separation from and not integration with the general society."

Until the 1960s, the Alliance network hardly operated in France, but mainly in North African countries. This was, to a large extent, an ideological decision - to bring modernization and French progressiveness to the region. "When the Jew becomes a Western person and a cultured individual, he will become a fair and honest citizen of the country in which he lives. The model is the liberated and modern Jews of Western Europe," says the motto of the Alliance Israelite Universelle movement, which was founded in 1860. At the height of its strength, there were 46 Alliance schools operating in Morocco.

The Georges Leven Alliance school, of which Sarrabia is the principal, was established about 10 years ago. Currently it has 440 students in sixth through twelfth grades. Every day one class prays in school's beit midrash (study house).

The students of the other classes are not obliged to attend prayers, but several dozen of them nevertheless attend the service. Unlike Yabne, and certainly unlike Otzar Hatorah, Jewish studies here are coed. The two sisters of 10th-grader Eli Ben Shimol attend Yabne, but he chose Alliance. "The families' religious backgrounds are completely mixed," he explains. "I preferred Alliance because it is freer and less limited. Here it is permitted to argue about everything."

The students study Bible, Talmud and more Jewish history relative to other schools. "In the more religious settings," says Sarrabia, "they teach a history of miracles and wonders. Here, the history teachers are teachers, not rabbis. We teach real history, with its positive and negative sides. This includes the changes that led to the Enlightenment in Ashkenazi Jewry or the absorption problems of the Jews who immigrated to Israel from Morocco. The religious schools believe that we are all wise and intelligent and there is only one Judaism. But that's not how it is. Moses Mendelssohn and Emmanuel Levinas [who worked at Alliance for many years - O.K.] were also important."