France has seen numerous anti-Semitic incidents in recent times but none that touched so many lives as the senseless attack at the Hyper Cacher market. A routine Shabbat afternoon suddenly became a worldwide event that brought attention to the French Jewish community and growing European anti-Semitism. The global Jewish community responded and offered political, financial and emotional support. As part of that ongoing response, world Jewish leaders made a solidarity visit to Paris last week to show our support to our Jewish family and learn how our funds are being spent.
Serving as a committee member of the Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) taught me much, and once again showed how the federation organizations of the U.S. support others in times of need. Realizing that it was important to show our solidarity with the French Jewish community, it was decided Paris would be the best place for JAFI to hold their Board of Governors meeting. The French Jewish community of 500,000 people represents less than 1 percent of the population, yet 49 percent of racist attacks are anti-Semitic. Besides the usual business meetings associated with a $387 million organization, meeting in Paris also gave the Board of Governors an opportunity to visit projects that have been funded by JAFI through federation donors.
Former Prisoner of Zion and JAFI Chairman Natan Sharansky stated in Paris that we need to be prepared for a mass migration of the French Jewish community. Those 500,000 in France make up the world’s third-largest Jewish population. There are 230 Jewish communities that have 500 temples and 161 day schools. JAFI has assisted many of these organizations with security planning, as well as outreach to those planning on making aliyah. The Jewish Agency for Israel’s mission is to inspire Jews throughout the world to connect with their people, heritage and homeland and empower them to build a thriving Jewish future and a strong Israel. To that end, we partner with the Israeli government to promote aliyah and serve those in need. With terrorism and anti-Semitic incidents on the rise, the French Jewish community turned to JAFI for help. Over 100,000 people have attended security awareness and self-defense classes. To supplement the French armed military protection on the perimeters of schools and synagogues, JAFI assisted with security systems for the interiors of these institutions.
While we were visiting the schools, we met with small groups of graduating high school seniors and nearly 75 percent of them have plans to immigrate to Israel and/or attend JAFI programs, such as Masa, that will let them learn more about Israel. Funds raised in the Phoenix Jewish community support programs like Masa and allow young adults to have an in-depth experience in Israel and escape the anti-Semitism in France. The French Jewish community is strongly Zionistic, and most of their youth have spent numerous summers in Israel. One evening, we attended a touching and emotional send-off of new French olim, who were greeted by the Israeli Minister of Immigrant Absorption Sofa Landver. It was beautiful to see Israeli flags flying from the La Victoire synagogue (Grande Synagogue de la Victoire), which has been at the center of Parisian life for over 135 years.
At the end of my three-day visit, I couldn’t help but contrast the lack of effective worldwide Jewish community leadership in the 1930s to our situation in 2016. Today, our leaders are looked upon to respond with financial, emotional and political support to aid those Jews under attack and they respond effectively. In the 1930s, there was no strong worldwide network of Jewish organizations like we have today. Oftentimes, people question the need for national organizations, and I can only tell you, after meeting with the French Jewish community leaders, I heard the answer loud and clear.
It was echoed with 100 Jewish leaders coming to show solidarity in Paris. Without it, our French family would be a bit different today. Our French family wouldn’t have a secure future waiting for them in Israel like they do today if it weren’t for a worldwide collective effort.
W. David Weiner serves as the campaign chairman of the Jewish Federation of Greater Phoenix and is a committee member of the Board of Governors of Jewish Agency for Israel.