French Jews: To stay or to go?

Valley residents Esther and Don Schon just returned from visits to France and Israel as part of Jewish Federations of North America’s Campaign Chairs and Directors Mission. The Schons are the Major Gifts Chairs in the 2016 Campaign Cabinet of the Jewish Federation of Greater Phoenix. This guest blog post was written by the Schons on July 13.

The conundrum “Do we go or do we stay?” may well summarize the agonizing decision that French Jews face.

Jews in France make up the third-largest Jewish population in the West, but represent less than 1 percent of the French population. Contrast this with a Muslim population of an estimated 10 million. Because of anti-Semitism, 12,000 French Jews have made aliyah in the last five years. Many of the immigrants are funded with money raised through JFNA (Jewish Federations of North America) facilitated by The Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI).
About 900 anti-Semitic incidents involving individual Jews or families occurred this past year. Jews, 1 percent of the population, experienced 50 percent of hate-related episodes in France last year. Anti-Semitism is not uniformly distributed in France. Professionals we met living in upper-middle-class areas did not fear their environment, and were working with government ministers to make hate speech of all kinds illegal.

However, we met residents of Sarcelles, a lower-middle-class neighborhood outside of Paris. They experience fear every day. They do not wear Jewish jewelry or kippot outside. Expressions of hatred – verbal and sometimes physical – are everyday experiences.
On the other hand, wealthier neighborhoods are free of these problems. We also listened to a panel of young entrepreneurs who feel they are creating a new post-Holocaust reality in France above the level of ignorance-based prejudice. On the other hand, we spoke with a graduate student and a law student, both at the Sorbonne, who felt traumatized on a frequent basis by Islamic students and by professors with views from the far left or far right.

So Jews move from the smaller cities to Paris for safety and comradeship denuding these areas of Jewish culture and tradition. Sarcelles, a suburb of Paris, now has 15,000 Jewish residents crowded into one square kilometer. In 2014, 1,700 recent Arab immigrants, incited by radical imams trained in North Africa and the Middle East, marched through the Jewish section burning cars, smashing all in their path, forcing terrified Jewish children to cower in their homes.

About 8,000 Jews made aliyah last year from France. But school funding to Jewish day schools from the government is per child. Thus, classrooms are closing. Jewish culture is in danger of contracting and without a strong diaspora population, it is questionable that the French government will continue to fight anti-Semitism and support Israel in the future.

JAFI sends over 100 Jews making aliyah to Israel every two weeks. Today [July 13], we personally were chosen to hand tickets and passports to 220 individuals. We all experienced tears of happiness for this great honor.


Esther Schon has just presented Mr. Souffir with the passports, plane tickets and other documents needed for his family to make Aliyah. Photo courtesy of the Schons

So do they go or do they stay? The beauty of what our federations are doing in France is allowing each individual Jew the gift of choice on a non-need-based basis. We in Phoenix and around North America help them fight anti-Semitism and connect to world Jewry if they elect to stay. We also help them make aliyah if they wish to leave. Each gets to choose. What could be more beautiful?

Federation mission to Tbilisi, Georgia


Tbilisi, Georgia

Esther and Don Schon, 2015 chairs of the Jewish Federation of Greater Phoenix’s annual campaign, and Marty Haberer, chief development officer of the Jewish Community Association of Greater Phoenix, are currently on the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) Campaign Chairs & Directors Mission to Tbilisi, Georgia and Israel. Here, Don Schon reports from the mission.

We arrived here at 3 a.m., got a few hours of sleep and joined other early arrivals on a bus tour of the vicinity. “Here” is Tbilisi, Georgia. We are on a mission for Federation campaign chairs, staff and presidents and are representing the Phoenix Federation together with Marty Haberer. Tomorrow, we will begin observing programs of the “Joint” or American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC). Any lingering doubts about making this trip disappeared today in talking to these dedicated volunteers, ages 35 to 70. It is humbling for Esther and me to see how much we are learning from the efforts others have made to create their communities around North America. The Joint is special to us. After World War II, Esther’s Holocaust survivor family received visas to immigrate to the U.S.A. The trip was financed by “The Joint,” as were the costs of getting them settled in Detroit. Without “The Joint,” I would have never met the love of my life 55 years ago at age 13 nor conceived the three incredible kids we have nor watch them as they all become more and more determined to make the world a better place.

Don Schon, center, and his wife, Esther, right, are in Tbilisi, Georgia on a mission with Jewish Federations of North America. Photo courtesy of Don Schon

Don Schon, center, and his wife, Esther, right are in Tbilisi, Georgia on a mission with Jewish Federations of North America. At left is is Lisa, a member of the Federation Young Leadership Council who lives in California. Photo courtesy of Don Schon

Georgia ended 70 years of Soviet domination in 1990. The scars of Soviet architecture litter the landscape. The Georgians are a proud people and exceedingly friendly. However, as we watch the people and the landscape and listen to the bitterness left behind from the Russian occupation, it becomes apparent that this country is only beginning its emergence into first-world status.

We are told that Jews first came here at the time of the Babylonian exile 2,800 years ago. We are also told that anti-Semitism does not exist in Georgia and that the Georgians value their Jewish brothers and sisters. But if that is true, then why has the Georgian Jewish population shrunk from 100,000 to less than 5,000 Jews? We will learn more about this as the trip progresses.

ADL and FBI warn of cyber-attacks on Israeli, Jewish sites April 7

The FBI has warned U.S. companies that hackers from the Middle East and North Africa plan to conduct cyber-attacks in an “electronic Holocaust” April 7 to coincide with the second anniversary of the first #OpIsrael attacks on April 7, 2013, the date of Yom Hashoah that year.

Those attacks were conducted by the international activist hacker group Anonymous. There is evidence, according to the ADL, that this year’s attacks will be headed by an affiliate group, AnonGhost, which “frequently employs anti-Semitism as part of its cyber activity.” Besides the annual effort to hack Israeli government and institutional websites, the ADL reports that AnonGhost “appears to have already threatened individual Israelis with violence through mobile devices”  and “the group claims to have obtained personal information on more than 200 Israelis. One threat­en­ing text the group claims to have sent to an Israeli included an image of an infamous ISIS fighter with the cap­tion, ‘We are com­ing O Jews to kill you.’ A text sent to another Israeli man included an image of his family with the threat, ‘I’ll stick a knife in their throats.'”

“In the past three years, anti-Israel hackers participating in this campaign have targeted Israeli sites with limited success, but they are now widening their attacks to target individual Israelis with threatening anti-Semitic rhetoric,” said Abraham H. Foxman, ADL National Director. “Israel and Jewish communities worldwide should be on alert, as digital terrorism takes many forms and hackers are getting more sophisticated.”

AnonGhost is unambiguous in its support of Hamas and ISIS (or Islamic State), the ADL said.

“While anti-Semitic themes existed in previous #OpIsrael campaigns, it had been primarily billed as a response to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. AnonGhost’s participation and tactics thus far speak to the centrality of anti-Semitism in this year’s campaign, which serves as an extension of AnonGhost’s pro-terror activism around the world,” the ADL said in its warning.

The FBI’s threat assessment is that the AnonGhost and other hackers participating in #OpIsrael can mount low-level denial of service (DoS) attacks and deface websites. DoS attacks use a flood of log-in requests aimed at a target to overwhelm its capacity and cause the targeted sites to crash. According to the FBI, “the most likely targets for the campaign are Israel-based systems or the systems of worldwide Jewish-oriented organizations like synagogues or cultural centers.”

“Based on historical targeting preferences, the attackers will likely focus primarily on Israeli financial institutions, but may also target Israeli media outlets,” the FBI warning said.

“Given the perceived connections between the government of Israel and Israeli financial institutions, and those of the United States, #OpIsrael participants may also shift their operations to target vulnerable U.S.-based financial targets or Jewish-oriented organizations within the United States,” it also said. “Based on historical attacks, the FBI assesses that attacks which may spawn from #OpIsrael to target U.S.-based systems will likely constitute only a small percentage of overall activity.”

A video posted by Anonymous, which still appears to be involved in #OpIsrael, last week accused Israel of “crimes in the Palestinian territories” and threatened: “We will erase you from cyberspace in our electronic Holocaust. “As we did many times, we will take down your servers, government websites, Israeli military websites, and Israeli institutions.”

Berlin – A Ray of Hope in Europe

Guest blogger Stuart Wachs, president and CEO of the Jewish Association of Greater Phoenix, recently returned from a mission to Berlin and shares his reflection from the trip.

I have just returned from a short mission to Berlin with 12 Federation colleagues. Sponsored by Daat travel, this was a unique opportunity to see Jewish Berlin and gain an understanding of the historic, horrific, tragic and encouraging Jewish life in Berlin. I must admit that before I was presented this unique opportunity, I didn’t think a trip to Jewish Berlin could be encouraging. I was wrong.

Berlin has a very rich Jewish history prior to World War II. Jews integrated into society, Jewish life was full and many Jews fought and died defending Germany in World War I. Then came the atrocities of Nazi Germany: the destruction of Jewish life in Germany, the deportation and murder of Jews, and the darkest moment in Jewish history.

Gleis 17 (Track 17), in the neighborhood of Grunewald, was the main deportation center for Berlin Jews during the Holocaust has a memorial that was initiated by the Deutsche Bahn, the German national railway company, to commemorate the deportations undertaken by its predecessor, the Deutsche Reichsbahn.  Photo by Stuart Wachs

Gleis 17 (Track 17), in the neighborhood of Grunewald, was the main deportation center for Berlin Jews during the Holocaust. It now has a memorial that was initiated by the Deutsche Bahn, the German national railway company, to commemorate the deportations undertaken by its predecessor, the Deutsche Reichsbahn. Photo by Stuart Wachs

During the trip, we saw where Nazi bunkers and the SS headquarters were previously located. We visited the railroad station, Track 17, where thousands of Jews were deported and soon murdered at Auschwitz, Theresienstadt and other concentration camps. Standing in these locations was disturbing. When you see the many houses that overlook the railroad station, one can only imagine the number of people who simply turned their heads. Your eyes fill with tears and your heart pounds with sadness, followed by anger. Then, you think of what is currently happening across Europe and the Middle East today. You pray that good people will raise their voices to take action.

Germany is taking action. It took far too long after World War II for Germany to face up to the atrocities that were committed there and throughout Europe by the Nazis.

By the 1990s, Germany had begun owning its past and making a stand to ensure it does not happen again. We visited the memorial to Jews killed in Europe that was intentionally not called a Holocaust memorial but instead is specifically called the “Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.”

It is located in the heart of Berlin – paid for and maintained by the German government. Interestingly, this memorial and most of the other memorials we visited where not constructed for tourists. They were constructed for the citizens of Germany and the messages on the plaques are written in German. The memorials are a constant reminder to the German citizens, a reminder of what happened when they did not resist the evil Nazi movement – when they turned their heads from the murder of their fellow citizens. The messages on the plaques call on the German citizens to keep this from happening again. The government instituted one of the strongest Holocaust education programs for its public schools in the world and installed “stumbling blocks,” small plaque memorials that are placed randomly in the sidewalks in major German cities. The stumbling blocks are a constant reminder so citizens will never forget.

"Shalekhet" (Fallen Leaves) is an installation  at the Jewish Museum Berlin. More than 10,000 open-mouthed faces coarsely cut from heavy, circular iron plates cover the floor, expressing the irretrievable loss of the Jews murdered in Europe. Photo by Stuart Wachs

“Shalekhet” (Fallen Leaves) is an installation at the Jewish Museum Berlin. More than 10,000 open-mouthed faces coarsely cut from heavy, circular iron plates cover the floor, expressing the irretrievable loss of the Jews murdered in Europe. Photo by Stuart Wachs

While in Berlin, we went to the Jewish museum – not a Holocaust museum, but a Jewish museum. Exhibits portrayed the complete history from the thriving days pre-World War II to the horrific days of Nazi Germany. This museum is another example of the government’s dedication to fully illuminate its history – what had been and what can be again. We visited with leaders of the Jewish community in Berlin as well as students, young families and a rabbi, all who say that they feel comfortable being Jewish in Berlin. They all felt the government was doing what it could to support them, by providing security for the Jewish institutions and to help ensure the Holocaust is never forgotten or repeated. We walked comfortably to and from synagogue on Shabbat wearing kippot without worry or incident.

This does not mean anti-Semitism doesn’t exist in Germany or that the country is truly safe for all Jews. It does appear that at a time when anti-Semitism is running rampant in so much of Europe, of all places, Germany is a shining light. This is ironic in many ways but speaks to the possibilities that can exist when people and government are willing to admit their past sins and commit to creating a better tomorrow.

Our four-day mission trip was powerful and emotional. We were reminded of a thriving Jewish community that was lost to the horror of Nazi Germany. We experienced a present-day Jewish community that is starting to thrive, attracting Jews from other parts of Europe and from Israel to call Berlin home. I pray that this shining light keeps shining; that it gets brighter; and that somehow, other countries in Europe follow the example of present-day Germany. I highly encourage you to visit Berlin – to show your support for the Jewish community and for the German people who are building a strong Jewish community.


It was a sunny morning. I woke up, got together my breakfast and coffee and just as I sat down to eat, the phone rang.

I let out a sigh and wondered who’d be calling before business hours. Just a normal scene, a normal interruption, a normal day.

Then, I answered the phone.

My mother was on the other end and she was hysterical. She lives on the East Coast. I’m not the first one she should be calling in an emergency, I thought. She also was never prone to hysteria. She had lived under bombing raids in World War II.

“How can they do that? How could they do something like that?” she screamed.

I thought that maybe one of my siblings had been hurt by some attacker, but I had no clue what she was talking about.

When I calmed her down, she was able to tell me of the events that morning, she had forgotten the time difference. I had not turned on a television or a radio, so I hadn’t heard about the collapse of the World Trade Center after a group of Muslim zealots slammed airplanes into the Twin Towers.

None of us will forget that day 12 years ago. We’ll honor the spirit of the first responders, curse the hatred that led to the attack, and realize how much our lives have been changed.

— Salvatore Caputo

Bnei Menashe in India celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut

The Shining Kidz sing Hatikvah Photo by Yochanan Phaltual, courtesy of Shavei Israel

The Shining Kidz sing Hatikvah
Photo by Yochanan Phaltual, courtesy of Shavei Israel

More than 1,200 members from the Bnei Menashe community of northeastern India celebrated Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israel’s Independence Day) and the resumption of their aliyah to Israel on April 17 with a festive celebration in the town of Churachandpur, India – in the northeastern Indian state of Manipur.

The gathering, which was sponsored and organized by the Shavei Israel organization, was the largest in the Bnei Menashe community’s history, according to a press release. Just last October, the Israeli government lifted a five-year ban on the Aliyah of Bnei Menashe in a unanimous decision. Since then, more than 270 Bnei Menashe have been brought on Aliyah by Shavei Israel.

The Patlen Cultural troupe performs at the festival.  Photo by Yochanan Phaltual, courtesy of Shavei Israel

The Patlen Cultural troupe performs at the festival.
Photo by Yochanan Phaltual, courtesy of Shavei Israel

“This Yom Ha’atzmaut is particularly poignant for the Bnei Menashe,” Shavei Israel Founder and Chairman Michael Freund said. “With the resumption of the aliyah from India, the community’s dream of returning to the land of their ancestors is finally coming to fruition. In the coming months, with G-d’s help, we aim to bring another 900 Bnei Menashe back home to Zion,” Freund added.

“There has never been such a joyous event like this before in our community. We are celebrating in spirit with our Bnei Menashe brothers and sisters who have already made aliyah to Israel in hopes that we will be joining them very soon,” said Yochanon Phaltual, a Bnei Menashe member who organized the event. “To celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut with the realistic hope of making aliyah soon fills my heart with joy. I was especially moved when we all stood up and sang Hatikvah. That was a very special moment for me and I really hope that we can all sing it together next year in Jerusalem.”

About Bnei Menashe:

The Bnei Menashe (Hebrew for “sons of Manasseh”) are descended from one of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel, who were sent into exile by the Assyrian Empire more than 27 centuries ago. They live primarily in India’s northeastern border states of Manipur and Mizoram. Their ancestors wandered through Central Asia and the Far East for centuries, before settling in what is now northeastern India, along the border with Burma and Bangladesh. Throughout their exile, the Bnei Menashe nonetheless continued to practice Judaism just as their ancestors did, including observing the Sabbath, keeping kosher, celebrating the festivals and following the laws of family purity.