PARIS – At 44 rue de la Victoire in the 9th Arrondissement, the Grand Synagogue of Paris stands tall, its ornate facade overshadowing the neighboring buildings.
La Victoire, as it is known colloquially, has been a fixture of stability for the Jewish community of Paris. Throughout its 150 years it had never been closed, not even during the world wars or the 2015 terror attacks that struck the city. Then came the coronavirus.
“During the Holocaust or Charlie Hebdo, the enemy was an enemy against whom you could fight, but today we can’t,” says Jacques Canet, president of the synagogue’s congregation. “The best way to fight is to stay at home.”
The 70-year-old Canet has been a regular at La Victoire for 60 years; it’s where he was married and where his children celebrated their bar and bat mitzvas. Thirty years ago he joined the congregation’s management, where he has played a variety of roles.
Canet calls the place his home, and he says he feels “very bad” about closing it. It definitely wasn’t an easy decision.
According to Moshe Sebbag, the synagogue’s chief rabbi, “When we realized it was a dangerous situation for the public there was no other choice.” Keeping it open even during the Nazi occupation was a way to save lives, he says, and “now, shutting down the synagogue will save lives.”
In fact, the synagogue’s administrative board decided to cease activity in early March, almost two weeks before the official French lockdown was set. Shabbat dinners, the saying of the kiddush prayer and even the annual Purim feast were canceled.
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“I believe the best decision we made was not to have the Purim feast, because that’s how most people got infected,” Sebbag says, referring to France's wider Jewish community.
Talmud Torah classes and all the activities of the Israelite scouts were also suspended – at least until this coming Saturday – before the government announced its closure of schools. In a letter to his congregation, Sebbag explained “the most painful decision” he has ever made: the first-ever closure of the Grand Synagogue of Paris.
“In this terrible period, we must be exemplary and respect all the containment measures set out by the authorities to put an end to this tragedy as quickly as possible and support the efforts of health personnel,” he wrote in his letter, calling his people to take the time to reflect, study and cherish the family moments.
After consulting with the chief rabbis of Rome, Marseille and Paris, it was the chief rabbi of Strasbourg who resonated with Sebbag the most. “He was crying, truly begging me through tears to close down. ‘People are dying here,’ he told me, ‘stay at home,’” Sebbag says.
More than 900 deaths have been reported so far in the virus-stricken Grand Est region, nearly one-third of France’s COVID-19 fatalities, now surpassing 3,000.
“After hearing about the many infections taking place in the Strasbourg congregations, I realized it was on my shoulders and my responsibility to make a call that is beyond my scope historically,” Sebbag says.
Since its consecration in 1874, the Grand Synagogue has always been a linchpin of the Parisian Jewish community. It’s the head office of the chief rabbis of Paris and all France, and is considered by many a meeting point of the Republic and Jewish life.
“It’s home to a very Republican congregation, extremely involved in the city’s activities and daily life,” Canet says.
According to Canet, its historical heritage was also significant in the establishment of Israel. It was where Cpt. Alfred Dreyfus was married and where, upon his arrest, he was visited by Theodor Herzl. The synagogue’s president at the time, Edmond de Rothschild, had bought land in Palestine, planting the seed in the young journalist’s mind.“
La Victoire is the nesting place of the idea of creating a national home for Jews in Palestine,” Canet adds.
A controversial move
One of the most heartbreaking affects of the closing of the synagogue was the cancellation of the dozens of weddings that were planned for the beautiful main hall, which can host more than 4,500 people during peak events such as Yom Kippur’s concluding service. Serge Lellouche’s daughter was supposed to get married at La Victoire on last Sunday.
“At the beginning of March we saw the news and knew this virus was malicious,” he says. As a Sephardi Jewish family, the Lellouches meticulously planned over six months not only a wedding but a grand henna celebration, a civil wedding ceremony and a big after-wedding party in a chateau on the outskirts of Paris.
It was going to be the first wedding in the family, and they were greatly looking forward to hosting the 200 guests expected to arrive from across France, Israel and New York.
“It was so hard to tell them the wedding was canceled,” Lellouche says. “It was so difficult to organize the invitations, all the postcards we sent out, and then a week later to cancel everything.” His 32-year-old daughter, who asked not to be named, was devastated.
“We tried to comfort her and we said this situation is terrible for everyone around the world; there’s nothing we can do against this virus, people are dying, it’s awful for everyone," Lellouche says. “But I understand of course how she feels.”
Some people considered the shutting down of a religious institution, especially such a prominent one as La Victoire, controversial. “We received much criticism for those decisions, mostly from some more Orthodox communities,” Canet says.
La Victoire is part of the Consistoire, a Jewish institution overseeing 120 synagogues across the city. It usually introduces the policies the other houses of faith follow.
“As you know, the Jewish people criticize everything, so we received complaints but we didn’t care, we wanted to keep our congregation safe more than anything so we didn’t hesitate at all,” Canet adds. He says there are still synagogues that are reluctant to close, and they continue to hold a minyan prayer of at least 10 people.
“It’s a very small minority but even one or two [synagogues] is too much, it’s a crazy frame of mind to be like that,” Rabbi Sebbag adds with a sigh, expressing the burden of making his unprecedented call. But he firmly believes it was the right thing to do.
“A parable tells of a man during the holiday of Sukkot who walks into a sukkah to eat and suddenly it starts to rain,” he says. “According to the law of the Torah, if it rains one must go inside and eat at home. It’s now raining so much it’s a flood.”