An American rabbi in Paris
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An American rabbi in Paris

NYU's Rabbi Yehuda Sarna talks about France to local shuls

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Rabbi Yehuda Sarna outside the Hyper Casher kosher supermarket in Paris.

Two weeks ago, when four Jews were killed in a terrorist attack at a kosher supermarket in Paris, Rabbi Yehuda Sarna decided to go to Paris to visit and comfort the community

Rabbi Sarna leads the Bronfman Center for Jewish Life at New York University – the school’s equivalent of a Hillel chapter.

As a native of Montreal, he speaks French. And as a disciple and former intern of Rabbi Avi Weiss, his reaction to a crisis is: “When you feel a personal connection and likely nobody else will be there, just go.”

So two weeks ago, shortly before Shabbat, he posted plans to go to Paris on his Facebook page. Within half an hour, he had found a group of people interested in going with him.

Then he spent that Shabbat at Englewood’s Kesher synagogue as scholar-in-residence. It was the first of two consecutive scholar-in-residence weekends in Englewood that bookended his Paris trip; last Shabbat he was at Congregation Ahavath Torah there. Both weekends were planned months ago and Ahavath Torah got the better deal: Congregants there got to hear about his trip.

Rabbi Sarna ended up traveling as part of a group of eight. Rabbi Weiss had been in Israel and changed his plans to join them. Rabbah Sarah Hurwitz was among the group, as was a Canadian student at Rabbah Hurwitz’s Yeshiva Maharat who also comes from Canada and speaks French. There was a rabbi from Montreal and some former students from NYU.

“Having eight people going enabled us to split up when we needed to,” Rabbi Sarna said.

“We visited three Jewish schools. We spoke with different leaders of CRIF, the Jewish representative council. We met with a cousin of Yoav Hattab, one of the four who was killed. We went to the kosher supermarket” – Hyper Casher, where hostages had been taken. “People were gathering and there were tehillim that were being said. We also visited with the shul where Netanyahu had spoken days before, and met with a number of rabbis.

“We were very, very warmly received. I believe we were the only group of Americans who came in this capacity in the aftermath. Because we had people who spoke French and who knew Paris and knew members of the community, that elevated the level of comfort people had.

“Typically during a crisis people can only see right in front of themselves. For others to come from such a great distance and say ‘we care about you’ is a very powerful thing,” he said.

Rabbi Sarna learned about the importance of these visits during his second week as a rabbinical student intern at Rabbi Weiss’ Hebrew Institute of Riverdale.

It was September, 2001.

As soon as Rabbi Weiss heard what happened on September 11, “he went down to the site. The next morning at Shacharit, he came to shul covered head to toe in dust.

“He said, ‘Yehuda, you really should come down with me.’

“I said, ‘Why?’

“He said, ‘You just have to go where the crisis is.’

“I went down. Initially I didn’t know what to expect. Then I saw the way he was providing moral support to people at such a difficult time and saw the wisdom in just getting there and figuring out the rest later,” he said.

What did he learn during his visit to Paris?

“I had never seen that many Jews in fear. I’ve been in Israel through the second intifada, during the war this past summer. This felt different. It felt like there was a hidden threat and no one quite knew when it would strike. People feel like they’re in the crosshairs of someone’s sight.

“Every school we walked into had armed soldiers in front.

“We asked a class of ninth graders how they felt and they said they’re terrified.”

The group met with the head of the PTA from a Jewish school five minutes away from HyperCacher.

“What am I supposed to tell parents?” she asked. “Our school was in lockdown while the hostage-taking was in process. Parents couldn’t get in. Kids couldn’t get out. The children are traumatized every day. They’re asking the question: ‘Does every child have to go to a school with guns at the door?'”

Rabbi Sarna said that “French Jewry are anything but a weak people. They’re very brave, very bold. They’re very confident, smart and strong.

“But the threat is very real so they’re legitimately in fear. It’s not that they’re scared of their shadow. They’re scared of a very real threat. I think it’s important to communicate that voice,” he said.

On Shabbat morning at Ahavath Torah, the topic of Rabbi Sarna’s talk, agreed upon months ago, was the future of Muslim-Jewish relations. (Rabbi Sarna’s relationship with NYU’s Muslim religious leader, Imam Khalid Latif, was the topic of a documentary film, “Of Many.”)

“Much of what I said was consistent with what I would have said previously,” before the terror in Paris and his trip there.

“The argument is simply that alienation from society is one cause – not the only cause – one step toward radicalization. With all the tensions that exist between Jews and Muslims in the U.S., the U.S. is still doing a pretty good job of integrating the Muslim population and providing them with the hope one can be both Muslim and American. My experience in France is that there’s still a lot of work to be done in that regard there.

“I’m trying to encourage the Jewish community here in the United States to do more to reach out to Muslim communities here.”

While he was in Paris, Rabbi Sarna took advantage of his connections through NYU’s Paris outpost to organize a screening of the documentary. “A lot of students came out, a lot of faculty members. Some local religious leaders attended. I reached out to local Muslim clergy, none of whom were able to attend that night, but a number of whom were eager to meet us. That to me provided a glimmer of hope.

“One of the things which surprised me that came out from dialogue after the film screening is the strong secularist ethic that pervades French culture, and the advantage and disadvantages that creates, when we’re talking about what is, in part, an interreligious struggle.

“In the U.S., because the fabric of our culture is religious, there’s a greater comfort in talking religion from the inside. People will talk about their faith. In France it’s very different. That is a disadvantage.

“On the other hand, the secularism can create a kind of faith-blindness, where everyone is expected to leave their religious background out of it when they engage in the public sphere,” he said.

Rabbi Sarna said that a group in New York is working to launch an association to help American Jews help French Jewry.

“We do have a role to play but we need to develop a depth of understanding of the situation so our efforts can really be productive,” he said. “The situation there is very complicated. French Jewry has its own narrative, its own illustrious history, its own strengths. American Jewry must be keenly aware of those.”

One method of helping French Jews was suggested by his wife, Dr. Michelle Waldman Sarna, a school psychologist, who suggested he take letters from American children to their French counterparts.

“I brought sixty or seventy letters, written mostly in English, some in Hebrew, a handful in French. I was able to go into the classrooms there and say to children, ‘Your brothers and sisters in the United States have sent you these letters because they care about you.’ To watch them gather around, cutting open the envelopes, trying to translate from English to French – that was a beautiful moment,” he said.

Rabbi Sarna is now organizing a massive letter-writing campaign, “to ensure that all of the 167 Jewish schools in France receive letters like that,” he said.

“The response so far has been amazing.”

Anyone who wants to join in this endeavor should email him at rabbi.sarna@nyu.edu

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