Whipping out a 9mm gun, the motorcyclist opened fire on the children and parents at the school’s drop off point. Some children had just arrived at the school to daven, while others were waiting for transport to another school nearby. They became terrified by the sound of gunfire as the terrorist attacked people on the street, foiling the school’s high level of security which includes closed circuit cameras, a high metal gate, and towering walls.
From close range, the terrorist gunned down one of the school’s teachers, Rav Yonason Sandler HY”D (30), his son Gavriel HY”D (aged three) in his arms, and his son, Aryeh HY”D (aged six) standing right next to him.
When the terrorist’s 9mm gun jammed, he coolly switched to a .45 caliber pistol. Running into the school, he seized eight-year-old Miriam Monsonego HY”D daughter of Rav Yaakov Monsonego, the school’s principal, and shot her a number of times before racing back to his motorcycle and speeding off. Witnesses noticed that he was carrying a small apparatus on his neck. Police suspect it was a camera he used to film his murderous act.
This was the worst anti-Semitic attack in recent French history since a 1982 shooting at a Paris restaurant left six people murdered and twenty-two injured.
The Ozar HaTorah School is part of a national chain of about twenty Jewish schools throughout France, founded in 1945 after Isaac Shalom, one of the founders of New York’s Syrian community, traveled to Eretz Yisroel and the Middle East and found that Jewish spiritual life was on the decline. Thousands of Jewish children were hungry and illiterate. To save the “forgotten million” of Jews of an area stretching from Morocco to Iran, he and two others founded the Ozar Hatorah organization whose goal was to provide a quality Jewish education to children in Eretz Yisroel and Arab countries to save them from their communities’ spiritual decline.
In 1964, after starting dozens of institutions in the Middle East, the organization opened its first school in France, and the Ozar Hatorah school of Toulouse opened its doors in 1983.
“Each of our twenty schools is developed to be a center for Jewish life with a mikvah, shul, adult classes, day camps, and a lot of community activities in these areas,” Ozar Hatorah writes. “These aggressive plans will not only help stem the tide of intermarriage, but will accomplish a renaissance of the entire French Jewish population.”
Yonasan Sandler was in Toulouse as part of a kiruv project financed by the Wolfson Foundation. Indeed, his whole life was devoted to Torah and kiruv. After studying in the Ozar Hatorah school of Toulouse during his school years, he learned in the Beit Halevi Yeshiva in Bayit Vegan, Yerushalayim, for three years, married in France, and then learned at Kollel Zichron Shimonin Yerushalayim’s Kiryat Yovel neighborhood that prepares avreichim to become rabbonim and mechanchim. Last September, Sandler left with his family to teach at his old school in Toulouse.
A DAY OF MOURNING
French President, Nicolas Sarkozy dropped his frenzied schedule in France’s election campaign and immediately headed to the scene of tragedy.
“Today is a day of national tragedy. Everything must be put into action so the killer can be arrested and made to account for his crimes,” Sarkozy said. “It is not just the Jewish community that is concerned. It is the whole national community. On the territory of the republic, one does not assassinate children like this.”
French Chief Rabbi, Gilles Bernheim, also rushed there saying he was “horrified by what happened this morning in Toulouse” and “bruised in my body and soul.”
President of the Conference of European Rabbis, Rabbi Pinchos Goldschmidt, called upon increased security measures, saying, “We must now urgently address the need to ensure that appropriate security measures are put in place at all Jewish institutions in Europe to ensure that the safety of Jews on this continent is not placed in jeopardy.”
“Our thoughts and prayers go out to the families and friends of the victims and we stand with a community in grief,” said a spokesman of Obama’s Security Council. “We join the government of France in condemning this unprovoked and outrageous act of violence in the strongest possible terms.”
Throughout the morning, wailing sirens and the beating of helicopter rotors reverberated throughout Toulouse and its surroundings as police mounted a search for the perpetrator of the crime. Sixty police officers and anti-terrorism experts were already in the area following the early attacks and more were sent out.
Monday was declared a day of mourning. In the Kiryat Yovel neighborhood of Yerushalayim where Rav Sandler studied the past few years, friends and neighbors were shocked by the tragic news.
“For him, this was a sort of closing of a circle,” said Netanel, an avreich from his Yerushalayim kollel. “He very much wanted to return what he received from Rav Monsonego, the director of the school. He always had a desire to disseminate Torah and increase kovod Shomayim. He was always involved with the life of the kollel, and rose to great heights in Torah and in ruchniyus. His appreciation of the value of Torah cannot be put in words. Despite many difficulties and despite coming from a home where the Torah world was unknown, he always wanted to transfer the good he received onwards to others. He and his children were murdered today al kiddush Hashem. We do not know the cheshbonos of Heaven; this was a gezeirah from on High.”
“He was a popular yungerman, sociable and beloved by all,” said Sandler’s chavrusa in the kollel, Aharon Getz. “His whole desire was to give everything for the benefit of the klal. He used to be mekarev French students visiting Israel for their studies, inviting them for Shabbos and helping them with whatever they needed. I knew him as an avreich who sat and learned constantly. Avreichim constantly asked him questions. They came to him for help because it was a pleasure; he always loved helping others. He came to Eretz Yisroel with messirus nefesh, leaving his parents behind in France. He had one desire, to advance in Torah and hashkofoh in order to return to France and give others what he learned.
“During his last month in Israel he spoke to me of how excited he was to be returning to Toulouse; he felt he was going on a special mission. He had very specific plans. He intended to return to Eretz Yisroel after two years in order to complete the halachah course he was participating in. A very noticeable part of his makeup was his midah of gratitude. This is why he returned to Toulouse, to give something back to Ozar Hatorah. Davka there, in the place he learned and wanted to teach, he was murdered together with his two sons.”
Yonason Sandler’s neighbors are in shock. They remember him as a person devoted to others, who ran gemachs from his home, who cleaned the shul with his own hands if the janitor didn’t show up or couldn’t come, and who had a smile for everyone.
“When I heard of the attack I didn’t know it involved this family,” said a neighbor, Leah Sarig. “When a neighbor told me I was in shock. I pinched myself to see if I wasn’t dreaming. You know someone for a while and then you suddenly discover one morning that he’s gone. It is painful to hear that such good people are no more.”
Yonason was also well known for the thoughtful column he wrote for the French newspaper that focused on kiruv and hashkofoh issues. In addition, he did volunteer work for the Shoresh kiruv organization.
Eve Sandler, Yonasan Sandler’s almonoh, said of her husband, “He came to teach for two years, traveling between Toulouse and Bordeaux to help children with learning difficulties to succeed and know Torah well. He devoted himself completely for this lofty goal. People are asking how they can help me and I say to them: The only help I ask for is to keep mitzvos and cleave to the Torah. If this holy kehilla fulfills mitzvos, I believe that the neshamos of my children will be received in Gan Eden.”
PART OF A PATTERN
Police soon linked the shooting to two similar ones that took place this month. On March 11, a lone motorcyclist shot Imad Ibn-Ziaten, a 30-year-old staff sergeant of African descent, in Toulouse as he was waiting to see someone about selling his motorbike. Four days later, on Friday last week, a helmeted, visored gunman on a black motorbike pulled up and fired at three French soldiers waiting at a cash machine in Montauban, some 29 miles from Toulouse, killing Abel Chennouf and Mohamed Legouad of North African descent, and leaving Loic Liber of Afro-Caribbean descent in a coma.
Police determined that the same .45 caliber gun was used in all three attacks. It is hoped that the motorcycle’s license plate found nearby identifying it as a Yamaha T-Max bought last May will also help identify the perpetrator. A woman helped fine tune the attacker’s identity by reporting that he seemed to have a tattoo on his face.
At first, investigators thought the killer might be a Muslim extremist avenging French involvement in the Afghan War. Suspicion now rests on three neo Nazi soldiers expelled from the French army after posing in uniform with a Nazi flag. They apparently served in the same paratrooper regiment as the soldiers killed last week.
“This is the first real lead the police have…,” an authority said. “The profile of these men corresponds to the scant information investigators have on the Toulouse killer — that is to say, muscular and tattooed.”
Police are also investigating whether the incident may be linked to letters sent to two shuls in Paris, one at the end of last week and one on the morning of the murder, saying, “You are the nation of the Satan — gehinom waits for you.”
THE FRENCH KEHILLAH IN CRISIS
At present, a fight is raging between two trends — the inherent Jewish feeling of the mostly Sefardi community of France, and the assimilationist trend of France that threatens to destroy most of the kehillah. The kehillah is almost all afraid of Muslim militancy.
During the 50s and 60s, France’s population became predominantly Sephardi when 10,000 Egyptian Jews arrived in 1955, and about 300,000 Jews moved in from France’s former North African colonies (mainly from Morocco and Tunisia) between 1956 to 1963. They now comprise about 70% of the population that jumped from 250,000 to 800,000 at the time. The Sephardi influx gave a boost to the country’s feeling of Jewishness, as 48 percent of shul affiliated Jews are “moderate Orthodox,” about 7 percent are “ultra-Orthodox,” only five percent are Reform or Liberal, and Conservative is almost non-existent. However, because of powerful assimilatory forces, only forty percent of the Jews are affiliated with shuls or Jewish organizations.
On the other hand, about forty percent of Jewish school children are enrolled in Jewish day schools and also, thanks to the efforts of organizations like Ozar Hatorah and people like Yonason Sandler, there is a religious revival and Torah Jews are steadily increasing.
The French kehilla is also threatened by the physical danger of Muslim militancy that has led to rising levels of anti-Semitic attacks since the early 2000s. This led to a peak of emigration in 2005 when 2,951 Jews emigrated to Eretz Yisroel.
Indeed, like Ariel Sharon a few years ago, MK Yaakov Katz (National Unity Party) called on Jews to leave France following the attack, saying that there is no Jewish future in France and that Jews should not trust their future to Sarkozy, Obama or other worldleaders.
French Jews are caught between a hammer and an anvil. Muslims already number more than five or six million, and France has many urban areas where they are a majority and do not want to integrate into French society. Many of them actively seek to conquer France, and indeed the whole of Europe, through Jihad. While most attacks come from France’s large Muslim community, neo Nazis movements and the extreme-right National Front headed by Jean-Marie Le Penn are becoming increasingly powerful due to France’s fear of Muslim takeover. And the anti-Muslim rightists are also no friends of the Jews.
The Jewish quandary is symbolized by the present elections where the far right politician, Marine Le Pen, has claimed that many Frenchman are eating halal (meat slaughtered in accordance with Muslim law) without knowing it. This had led to calls that meat from both halal and kosher sources be labeled that the animals were not stunned beforehand.
NEW YORK ON THE DEFENSE
There were peaceful demonstrations and mourning all over France. A huge march in Paris on Monday evening was attended by President Sarkozy, Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoe, and other dignitaries. Referring to the varied ethnicity of last week’s violence, a large banner at the event carried the legend, En France on tue des noirs des Juifs et des Arabes, “In France, Blacks, Jews, and Arabs are killed.” In the course of the march, a somber ceremony took place at the Nazareth Synagogue of Paris and memorial candles were lit at the Place de la Bastille, the square that memorializes the destruction of the Bastille Prison during the France Revolution.
In New York, the police department put a hundred more officers in Jewish neighborhoods and near shuls and batei medrash.
“We know that we’re at the top of the terrorist target list, so we’re concerned about the so-called copycat syndrome, where someone might see the events unfolding in Toulouse and take it upon themselves to act out,” said Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly. “We have to be concerned about what happens overseas. We have a significant Jewish population in this city, and we have to take that into account.”
Police also paid additional attention to Jewish institutions in other cities as well.
“There are individuals out there who hate and if they thought they could get away with it, they would do it today. There is no doubt in my mind,” Assemblyman Dov Hikind told CBS.
Hikind, standing together with New York City Council Members Mathieu Eugene, Lew Fidler, David Greenfield, Michael Nelson, leaders of the Boro Park and Flatbush Shomrim, community leaders and representatives from various mosdos condemned the terror attack in France.
“Today’s tragedy in France touches every one of us,” he said. “What kind of individual can walk up to a three-year-old, grab him by the hair and put a bullet in his head? You can’t educate people not to do things like that–you can only prepare for them.
“We cry for the victims and their families. And at the same time we must express our gratitude to Commissioner Kelly and the NYPD who have done an exemplary job of keeping our streets safe from terror in the wake of September 11 and the random acts of terrorism that have followed worldwide. Those who criticize the Commissioner and the NYPD should be ashamed! We need more security, not less.”
“We’re working on something major,” he promised. “It’s clear: The government must step in and intelligence gathering can’t be restrained. There’s no guaranteed way to stop terrorists and maniacs from perpetrating their sick acts of violence, but there are certainly better ways of curtailing them, as our law enforcement officers have demonstrated quietly since September 11.”
BURIAL IN ERETZ YISROEL
On Tuesday, French schools observed a minute of silence in memory of the victims, while French rabbis called for a Jewish response, calling for justice and building more schools, shuls, and Jewish institutions.
“This act of barbarity and murder will be met with a Jewish response,” said Rabbi Aryeh Goldberg, Deputy Director of the Rabbinical Centre of Europe.
“We will bury the dead, look after the injured, and we will demand that justice is pursued through the appropriate channels… This attack is an attack on the whole Jewish community,” he added. “We feel the pain of the families who have lost loved ones and as a community we will show our reaction. If there are people who want to scare the Jewish community into submission, our response will be to show them that we will not be bent, the opposite is true.”
There was a bit of a storm when Israel’s national insurance stated it would not finance the funeral of the Sandler family since they were not Israelis, but after massive pressure, a national insurance director promised to personally deal with the issue. The victims’ bodies are expected to arrive in Eretz Yisroel on Wednesday at 4:00 a.m., followed by a levayah at 10:00 at Har Hamenuchos. The Zaka organization has dealt with all the red tape.
“Yesterday we received a request from the family of the victims to help them in all that is connected with the levayah and kevurah in Israel,” said Yehuda Meshi Zahav, head of Zaka. “After some delay, we managed to get a plot for the victims on Har Hamenuchos in Yerushalayim. A Zaka ambulance and the chevrah kaddisha will transport the victims from the airport to Yerushalayim and the levayah at Har Hamenuchos.”
May the petirah of the kedoshim be a kapporah for Klal Yisroel.