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.

passport

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?


The fight against terror’s trauma

Valley residents Esther and Don Schon, who were in France as part of Jewish Federations of North America’s Campaign Chairs and Directors Mission, wrote this post on July 12. The Schons are the Major Gifts Chars in the 2016 Campaign Cabinet of the Jewish Federation of Greater Phoenix. 

We are in Paris with a Federation mission trying to understand why we should be here. Jews were expelled from France in 1492, not coming back until the French Revolution. Fully integrated, French Jews identified as Frenchmen who were Jewish.

During and after World War II, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) helped rehabilitate and re-establish a vibrant Jewish community. As Western Europe recovered, evolved and became prosperous, the role of JDC and its sister organization JAFI (the Jewish Agency For Israel) faded away from Western Europe, concentrating on cultures emerging from communism.

IMG_1316

Valerie Abraham, whose husband was killed in last year’s terror attack on the HyperCacher market, speaks to the JFNA campaign chairs and directors mission on July 12 in Paris. Photo courtesy of the Schons

Then came the attack on a Jewish day school in Toulouse in 2012, and the Charlie Hebdo and HyperCacher (kosher supermarket) massacres in Paris last year. Terrorism was new to France. Institutions in general and the organized Jewish community in Paris were paralyzed and traumatized. Immediately, the Israel Trauma Coalition (ITC) stepped in to offer counseling and organizational expertise with their Community Resilience Center. These resources had been developed in Israel in response to terror and disasters. They are available and have been used around the world after natural disasters in Haiti and the Philippines and after terrorism in Boston and now Europe. JFNA adopted the concept that any Jew should be able to live without fear in any city in Europe and around the world.

JDC and JAFI receiving funding from the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA). Without this financial support, neither organization would be able to exist. With this funding, trauma support is available immediately.

About 500,000 Jews currently live in France. Anti-Semitism has been on the rise there for 10 years. At first using denial, the French government downplayed the significance of these events. But since the massacres in Belgium and Paris over the past year, things have changed. Jewish schools and institutions now have three soldiers standing guard at all times. Funded with philanthropic dollars from the French community, the Rothschild Foundation and the French government, the Jewish community has and is developing its own security organization. ITC is additionally doing teacher training in Jewish day schools. All of this exists in great part because of North American dollars collected, administered and distributed by JFNA.

We were able to be there when the Jews of Paris needed us because federation-funded programs are there every day. Today we are donors and safe, but tomorrow we could be victims and vulnerable. We are one tribe. We take care of each other. After Sept. 11, 2001,  the ITC sent a team to New York  to help deal with an unspeakable terror and grief. Fourteen years or so later, Israel dealt with Hamas with Operation Protective Edge and invaded Gaza. People trained in NYC in 2001 went to Israel to help them deal with trauma and grief. One day we may be the benefactor, the next we may be the victim. In our tribe, we take care of each other.

 

 


JFNA Tbilisi mission: No Jew should be left behind

Maya, 88, is one of many seniors in Tbilisi, Georgia, who receives assistance from the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC). Through Hesed, a JDC program, she receives food and a home health aid. Photos courtesy of Don Schon

Maya, 88, is one of many seniors in Tbilisi, Georgia, who receives assistance from the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC). Through Hesed, a JDC program, she receives food and a home health aide. Photos courtesy of Don Schon

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.

Organized Jewish life in Tbilisi, Georgia has had some notable successes. We visited an Ashkenazic synagogue that was newly reconstructed to its traditional structure and function with donated local money.

Ashkenazic synagogue

Ashkenazic synagogue

Sephardic synagogue

Sephardic synagogue

They have services, a Hebrew school and daily minyan.

Tbilisi has a Jewish museum, constructed on the grounds of a former synagogue and in the ancient Jewish quarter and with government money and to celebrate its Jewish history.

In addition we visited the grand Sephardic Synagogue, large, maintained and functioning.

Georgian childrenToday we went to camp. The JDC (Joint Distribution Committee) has camp programs throughout the republics of the former Soviet Union. The camp is run by Israelis who come back year after year. For $1,100, a teenager gets two weeks of Jewish camp, where they are taught traditions, history and religious life skills.

We danced, we competed, we “twisted” and we ate with these incredible 13-, 14- and 15-year-olds. They often come from families with Jewish history from one parent or both, but with little Jewish knowledge. Once these kids make the effort to attend some Jewish events, they become eligible for camp. It was a glorious experience.

Marty Haberer

Marty Haberer, chief development officer of the Jewish Community Association of Greater Phoenix, joins the dance.

Esther buys food for Maya.

Esther buys food for Maya.

Tbilisi also has a Jewish Center which houses Hillel, programs for the elderly, youth programs and Hesed. Through Hesed we met Maya Bartkulashvili. Maya is 88 and home bound. Her family, a product of communist persecution, lived, and Maya still does, in one room. She has no kitchen nor toilet. There is a communal kitchen for six apartments with an old bathtub as the only water source for the building. There is no indoor toilet in the building. The building is from the 19th century, not maintained and with no heat. Maya uses a hot plate for warmth and received disabling burns by tripping on it. Her pension is $66 per month from which she has to buy all she needs. Hesed, a JDC program, shops for her and provides a home health aide. Hesed is able to allot her $40 per month for food. We bought her food, chocolate and a rare delicacy, bananas.

Then we saw the “kids.” Teens performed traditional Georgian Jewish dance in traditional costumes.

Georgian dancers2We watched in amazement as these children from a very poor rural area over an hour away danced their hearts away and then danced with us. All of this is possible because of North American Jewish dollars donated to JDC and the Jewish Agency. We all had tears of joy as we watched the amazing things our dollars do and tears of sadness for all the needs we saw for which no dollars are available.

Jews take care of Jews. No Jew should be left behind as we are responsible to each other. Our Phoenix Jewish community has clearly started these tasks. We help fund these programs big time through our Federation campaign dollars. Esther and I will come home with the determination to take our tasks to the next level.


JFNA Tbilisi mission: Both lightness and darkness

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.

At dinner, we listened to the minister of the interior and the prime minister of Georgia. Georgia’s history is startling and different. At the fall of the Soviet Union, Georgia was totally unprepared for independence. In those “dark” years, water was not delivered, electricity was unavailable and there was no economy. Georgia eventually reached out to the West and started to develop. However, one-third of Georgia lives upon less than $3 per day. They had the will to westernize, wipe corruption out of the police, military and government and open their door to immigration in and emigration out.

Georgia has never known significant nor institutional anti-Semitism. Muslims, Christians and Jews live and work together and intermarry. The interior minister spoke lovingly of his mother’s history. Having fallen in love with a Christian and marrying him, she was banished by her extended Jewish family. She allowed her son to be raised Catholic but taught him Jewish traditions and love of Israel.

The prime minister of Georgia spoke next, emphasizing that religious and ethnic bigotry was offensive to Georgian culture. The prime minister, the beneficiary of Jewish patronage and training, spoke with great respect and honor for the country’s Jewish heritage. He then went on to relate the economic needs of Georgia for U.S. investment, military training and their urgent desire for NATO protection against Russia. He was proud that Georgia enabled any Jew who wanted to return to their ancient home to do so. Tens of thousands have done so for economic opportunity and for education.

We also experienced the unique opportunity of a private audience with His Holiness the Patriarch of the Georgian Orthodox Church. He related his love for the Jewish people, his respect for their desire to return to their homeland and their contributions to Georgia. He ended by blessing us all and stated that for Georgians, a blessing from a Jew was like a direct blessing from G-d.

Patriarch

The patriarch of the Georgian Orthodox Church speaks to delegates of the JFNA mission to Tbilisi Photo courtesy of Don Schon

So, we discover a conundrum. Georgia is a country and culture that has a long history of Jewish acceptance and appreciation of our culture and traditions. Yet, the Jewish population has dropped from over 100,000 to less than 10,000 because of the opportunities available in Israel. So we have succeeded with a Zionist program which has depleted the Jewish population from the most accepting culture and country in Eurasia. As with most things in life, there is both lightness and darkness.


Federation mission to Tbilisi, Georgia

IMG_0848

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.