Imagine that you are a young, Torah observant family in Flatbush, Lawrence or perhaps Teaneck. You graduated from both high school and college and went on to apply your secular education in the workplace where you earn a comfortable living. You send your children to the Torah schools of your community where they are imbued with a love for Yiddishkeit and their lives are attuned to the Jewish calendar and the unique joys of each ensuing chag.
Suddenly, your world is turned upside down.
The growing Muslim immigration has given way to the existence of radical Islamic terrorist groups. Bombings and shootings have taken the lives of unsuspecting innocent people, The Jewish community is targeted and a sense of constant fear has replaced the once peaceful atmosphere.
Armed guards now stand in front of the schools and synagogues. The children are only allowed to play in gated areas under the supervision of security agents. It is now considered a calculated risk to make a simple visit to the local kosher grocery.
All at once, people who have lived in this corner of the Diaspora are turning their eyes toward Eretz Yisroel. The land of our forefathers has its share of security concerns and the threat from the surrounding Arab enemies is an unfortunate fact of life. But, when the time comes to make a run for it, the Jewish heart yearns to come home to Artzeinu HaKedosha.
Baruch Hashem, we in America continue to breathe the rarefied air of freedom. We send our children off to school in the morning with nary a worry. Indeed, our people are investing in new homes and vacation getaways at an unprecedented rate. And even while we daven for the imminent coming of Mashiach, we have become comfortable here. Such is the description of “good times” and we pray it should continue.
Our half million brethren in France however, have not been so lucky.
A Jewish community which traces its existence back over a thousand years is coming apart at the seams. The influx of Muslims has long made the streets of Paris less inviting. But now the threat of attack has been added to the mix and for many, life in France has become unbearable.
Those who can leave their homeland behind are frantically striving to do so. It is far from easy to walk away from the land of your birth where you are attuned to the language and customs and have found a way to earn a living. Moreover, it is beyond challenging to take leave of parents and family. The prospect of trading in all that is familiar for life in a country where the language and culture are foreign is enough to dissuade even the most intrepid would-be immigrant. But when there is no choice, you have to do what you have to do.
While there are many French Bnai Torah who can adapt to life in Bayit V’Gan or Ashdod (and are doing so), the overwhelming number of French Jews cannot look forward to such an easy transition.
In Israel, the public school system features both secular (Mamlachti) and “religious” (Mamlachti Dati) options. However, this difference is barely recognizable and by the end of eighth grade the system is producing the non-observant Israeli’s so preferred by the government and the Jewish Agency; young people who will enter the army and not make demands regarding Shabbos or Kashrus.
In France, the Otzar HaTorah system has a network of Day Schools which instills a love for Torah life. Even if the parents are quite modern and on a level of Jewish observance not much higher than “traditional”, their kids are coming home with Shabbos and Yom Tov, with Parsha and Dinim and with a love for the traditions of their forefathers. Indeed, the Teshuva movement in France has been tremendously successful and the parents of the students have grown along with their children.
In France, as in America, the practicalities of life and the need to fulfill government requirements have meant that Yeshivos have always devoted hours of class time to secular subjects. Even the most prestigious Yeshivos enable their talmidim to obtain high school diplomas. The average French parent expects their children to go on to college and they are shocked to hear that in Torah-true circles in Eretz Yisroel there is little, if any, focus on secular subjects.
The purity of chinuch in Eretz Yisroel has been under siege since the early days of the new yishuv. Torah leaders such as Rav Shmuel Salant zt’l and Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld zt’l refused to allow the “Alliance Israelite” to infiltrate the holy environs of Yerushalayim with their brand of secular education. The Gedolim understood that the offers of warm meals and broad educations hid a desire to modernize the population and tear them away from the kedusha of old.
Thus, in the Torah world of Eretz Yisroel today there is no continuing secular aspect once a child finishes elementary school. And any attempt to convince the Gedolim to allow new schools with an “American style” high school curriculum, have been denied. The purity of chinuch in Eretz Yisroel is simply not up for discussion. Indeed, the few attempts by those who have defied the Gedolei Yisroel and have opened such programs have failed miserably with an alarming rate of students falling away from the derech haTorah.
Potential olim from America have been aware of the difference in educational options and it has become common for people to wait for their children to finish high school before taking the family on aliya. It is unfair to expect a young student to suddenly have to adapt to a completely different educational structure. It is for this reason that Rabbanim the world over have long warned their mispallelim to make sure they have suitable arrangements for their children’s chinuch before making the move to Eretz Yisroel.
But the French do not have the luxury of biding their time and waiting for their children to graduate. They need to leave France now! And at the same time, they are not ready to commit their children to the Israeli Torah community’s version of an education.
Enter the Sochnut. The Jewish Agency is in the forefront of the effort to convince the French to emigrate. The Sochnut knows who they are dealing with and are selling the notion that the Mamlachti Dati public schools are the closest thing to an Otzar HaTorah education one will find in Israel. Their message is resonating by the bulk of those leaving France and the realization has set in that these people are escaping physical danger only to dive headlong in to spiritual oblivion.
Last April, at the Ma’amad Maranan V’Rabanan session of the annual convention of Lev L’Achim in Bnai Brak, Rav Yehoshua Barkat –a French born Rosh Kollel in Bnai Brak – sounded the alarm. Rav Barkat described the unfolding situation in detail and declared that it is up to the “p’eylim” to answer the call of the hour. Rav Shteinman immediately ordered the heads of P’eylim / Lev L’Achim to meet in emergency session. It soon became clear that the trickle of olim was about to become a torrent. French Bnai Torah in Israel, many of them volunteers for Lev L’Achim, had approached the organization with the disturbing news that the average French family considers the transition from Otzar HaTorah to Mamlachti Dati to be a lateral move. They simply do not foresee what lies ahead.
The trailblazing concept behind PROJECT RISHUM was that even as-yet secular parents will be open to the option of sending their children to Torah schools if the curriculum will not overwhelm them and the children will be accepted as equals by their peers. The Torani schools opened to accommodate the children of the Rishum mirror the Torah focused approach found in the hundreds of Chinuch Atzmai schools throughout the country. There is no compromise on standard and the children –and their parents– emerge learned and fully observant.
The Jews of France are mainly of Sephardic descent and share the traditional outlook to yahadut and the warm love of Shabbat and Chagim that has made it possible for so many parents of the Rishum to feel comfortable with Lev L’Achim. They want to become mainstreamed in to Israeli society and fully understand that the transition will be bumpy but well worth it. It stands to reason that the PROJECT RISHUM strategies that have brought tens of thousands of children to Torani schools to date, will work perfectly with the French olim as well.
The Chinuch Atzmai network is primed and ready to accept these children in their schools and to expand schools to make room for them. The remedial needs and special programming to mainstream the French will require a great investment of time, effort and money but as the educational representatives of the Gedolei Yisroel the leadership of Chinuch Atzmai is equal to the task. Indeed, the first schools to begin accommodating the French were the Chinuch Atzmai affiliated Nesivos Moshe school in Kadima and Shuvu school in Netanya.
A French speaking enrollment team was quickly recruited by Lev L’Achim. Talented Kollel scholars were convinced to go out to the field to help save a generation of French olim. Six enrollment officers (rashamim) were set up with cars, cell phones and whatever they need. Under the supervision of Rabbi Yonatan Rein they have been making connections, speaking to people and signing up the children. Over 450 boys and girls were registered in Torah schools and with the job of helping them become mainstreamed and dealing with their parents a constant, these Lev L’Achim workers are overloaded beyond description.
These rashamim are doing fabulous work in an uphill battle, and those who have underwritten their salaries and expenses have saved literally hundreds of children and their families for a life of observant Judaism. They are the only people working with the French who are doing the actual enrollment in Torah schools. Over $250,000 has been invested by Lev L’Achim this year and that figure will go up exponentially as more enrolment officers are hired.
There is a critical need for two more rashamim — one in Raanana and another in Netanya. Each rasham costs $30,000 per year, i.e., $2500 per month, which includes salary, vehicle, gas, and other expenses.
On Thursday, February 11, 2016, a meeting was held in the Lev L’Achim offices in Bnei Brak, attended by close to 30 organizations/rabbis/other activists in the French Aliyah. There was across-the-board agreement to join forces and cooperate as best as possible.
Other organizations active in this field include Ohel Naftali, which has a Kollel of 50 French speaking yungeleit in Bnai Brak and does excellent work on the campuses, and other rabbanim who give shiurim, have batei midrash, etc.
The representatives of the Kalever Rebbe (may he have a complete refuah) have used their connections to get the lists of names and addresses of the families who are planning to make aliya or have already done so. The first families became known to the Rebbe during his past visits to France. When asked for a beracha, the Rebbe invariably replied that he will only bless them if they provide their contact information so that they can be called to discuss a Torah education for their children. The Rebbe refused to take money and his overwhelming love for every yid left its mark on the people. When Lev L’Achim calls them they are receptive and open to going through with the enrollment.
Lev L’Achim is also in touch with well-placed individuals in France to get lists of the families and children planning to come on aliya.
Amongst the goals set for the coming year at the meeting were:
The hiring at least two additional rashamim, as mentioned above.
Attempting to open new Torani schools, under the Chinuch Atzmai banner, in Raanana and Jerusalem with a focus on the French.
The opening of community centers in Netanya, Raanana, Herzliya, Tel Aviv, Ashdod, and Jerusalem.
It has been proven that the best way to absorb a community with all the various aspects of yiddishkeit, is to establish a community center / beit midrash. Six yungeleit working afternoon and evening would cover the mentoring, Torah classes and school enrollment. They will coordinate special lectures and other activities including trips to visit gedolim and to mekomos hakedoshos.
Each beit midrash could service between 80-100 families and help the French olim successfully integrate in Israel. The plan is to work together with the Ohel Naftali organization which has much experience in this area.
According to the Jewish Agency estimate, over the next five years, there will be 10,000 olim per year from France. The Jewish Agency, as always, is doing its best not to allow the children a Torah education.
In the late 40’s and early 50’s the Jewish Agency spearheaded the mass aliya of the 2000 year old Jewish community of Yemen. The primitive tent city absorption camps (ma’abarot) became the site of an extensive secularization program which saw the peyot (simanim) shorn from precious Yemenite boys and the brainwashing of their unsuspecting parents.
The P’eylim movement was born at that time to meet the challenge of saving the Yemenite Jews. Today, the Jewish Agency is up to their old insidious tricks. But instead of easily misled Yemenites transported to a strange new modern world, it is the sophisticated French. They are not as easy to fool. If we can reach them with the compelling truth of what we have to offer, the historic challenge will become a historic victory.