Stay or go?
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Stay or go?

France’s Jewish community agonizes over its choices

“Should I stay or should I go?

If I stay there will be trouble, if I go it will be double!”

Those infamous words from the Clash’s 1981 hit “Should I Stay Or Should I Go” were constantly on our minds during the recent Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey’s mission to France.

The Jewish community is sadly divided by the recent anti-Semitic violence that has taken the country by storm, beginning over a three-week period in January 2006 when Ilan Halimi, a 26-year-old French Jewish cellphone salesman was kidnapped, tortured, and murdered, in an obvious act of anti-Semitism, by a group calling itself the Gang of Barbarians. And while not all the recent violence in France has targeted the Jewish community exclusively, the community nonetheless remains fearful, and in some cases traumatized, and in lock-down mode.

No Jewish institution can be found without French army soldiers, fully decked out with assault rifles, at its entrance. After the Charlie Hebdo attack on January 7, 2015, and the attack at the Hyper Cacher kosher supermarket a day later, Jewish schools in Paris had soldiers living inside their buildings 24/7. That has left the students jittery to this day. The Israel Trauma Coalition now has expanded its service network to France, providing support and counseling to families who have been traumatized as a result of these attacks and the ongoing security that it hopes will help prevent further incidents. These efforts are an attempt to secure the future of the French Jewish community as its numbers are beginning to dwindle.

And while record numbers of French Jews are emigrating to Israel — 8,000 went in 2015 — many more are staying put. After all, France has the third largest Jewish population in the world, behind only Israel and the United States. It is a community that has been in place for well over a millennium and has had full rights since the 1700s. What does it mean to global Jewry if the third largest Jewish population in the world disperses? This is an important question that we are left to ponder.

The issue of what French Jews should do illustrated the old adage — ask two Jews one question and get three answers. While many refuse to leave, others refuse to stay. And then there are those who are waiting to see what’s next. They are waiting for one more incident to help make their decision. Unfortunately, this is not a new story.

The situation is complicated, to say the least. And we are glad we were able to witness it firsthand, even though it often was depressing to confront the fear and anger of those we met. But there also were incredibly uplifting moments. Like when our delegation participated in handing out passports and plane tickets, on behalf of the Jewish Agency for Israel and the government of Israel, to 220 people making aliyah. That included Edith, our new adoptive bubbe, who could barely walk without assistance, but cheered and chanted “Yisrael, Yisrael, Yisrael” while dreaming of at last going to the homeland of the Jewish people. Edith couldn’t stop kissing and hugging us and patting our cheeks to thank us for this new lease on life — at 87!

People often ask why we have devoted ourselves to the federation system through the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey. What motivates us, day after day and year after year, to raise money for Jewish needs? What motivates us to leave our families and travel around the world to experience the reach of our communal philanthropic dollars? This is it! Edith is it!

Knowing that no matter what each individual Jew in France chooses to do — to stay or to go — the federation and all our donors will help secure the community for those who stay and also secure a soft landing in Israel for those who go.

“This indecision’s killing me. If you don’t want me set me free!”

Who knew the Clash would be so prophetic about the Jewish community of France?

Roberta Abrams of Montvale has been an active member of Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey’s board of trustees for many years. She is now the federation’s vice president of financial resource development.

Julie Lipsett-Singer is chief development officer at the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey. 

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