Thursday, Dec 2, 2021

The Jews of France, and the Spiritual Perils of Israel’s School System

We are currently witnessing a massive wave of immigration from France to Eretz Yisroel. The impetus is clearly the anti-Semitic atmosphere that has pervaded Europe as a whole and France in particular. This anti-Semitism has been manifested in a number of murderous attacks, which have left deep scars on the hearts of France's Jews. Perhaps there are other reasons as well, such as economic problems, but it is clear that the main cause of this wave of immigration is the sense of fear that has taken hold in the Jewish communities of France.

We are currently witnessing a massive wave of immigration from France to Eretz Yisroel. The impetus is clearly the anti-Semitic atmosphere that has pervaded Europe as a whole and France in particular. This anti-Semitism has been manifested in a number of murderous attacks, which have left deep scars on the hearts of France’s Jews. Perhaps there are other reasons as well, such as economic problems, but it is clear that the main cause of this wave of immigration is the sense of fear that has taken hold in the Jewish communities of France.

The new immigrants are assisted in their aliyah by representatives of the Jewish Agency, who endeavor to offer them the best possible conditions: excellent housing, employment similar to the jobs they left behind, and — the unfortunate part of the situation — the most appropriate schools for their children.

From the standpoint of the Jewish Agency, the schools in Israel that are the most similar to the Otzar HaTorah network in France are the public and state religious schools. In truth, however, not only are those schools in no way similar to the Otzar HaTorah institutions, but the immigrant children enrolling there are embarking on a steep spiritual decline from a makom Torah to a place that is the opposite of Torah, if not outright kefirah.

Is this part of some sort of organized, calculated effort to drive the children away from religion? We will never know the answer to that question. Some say that it is. Others say that it isn’t. Regardless of the motives, the results are the same. Hundreds, even thousands, of immigrant children are in danger of being secularized. Some of them have already stopped wearing yarmulkas. Their parents discovered too late that not everything in Eretz Yisroel is holy.

This situation was recently brought up by a number of rabbonim and community leaders in France, and was brought to the attention of the gedolim in Eretz Yisroel. As a result, the two largest kiruv organizations in Eretz Yisroel, Lev L’Achim and Shuvu, leapt into action, launching an immediate campaign to counteract the efforts of the Jewish Agency representatives and to raise the alarm among the Jews of France about the spiritual perils of Israel’s school system. Above all, the two organizations have set out to provide a proper framework for the absorption of French immigrant families and their children.

Rav Moshe Taub, the Kaliver Rebbe of Brooklyn, New York, has been particularly distressed by the current situation. For years, the Rebbe has been working hard to wield influence in any Jewish community where it was possible, including in France. Over the past few decades, he has been mekarev many Jews throughout the world. At the beginning of the month of Av, he addressed a letter, which was read at a gathering in Yerushalayim, to the members of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah of Agudas Yisroel, making a heartfelt plea for them to work for the spiritual salvation of the thousands of Jewish children immigrating from France. Although the Rebbe has been gravely ill and writing the letter took an enormous physical toll on him, his distress over the children’s plight moved him to write it.

“To the great luminaries, the leaders of Klal Yisroel in Eretz Yisroel,” the letter declares, “I have found it necessary to bring to your attention an issue concerning the children of immigrants from France, which I know about from close sources. Recently, there has been increased immigration from France to Eretz Yisroel. This does have a certain benefit for the secular Jews, since in Eretz Yisroel there is a greater chance that they will marry Jews. But we have unfortunately seen that it has also been a sort of decree of shmad for many Torah-observant and traditional Jews. As I have seen, those children studied in France in schools where they were educated in the ways of the Torah, while in Eretz Yisroel they are being placed in mixed schools that are far from Yiddishkeit. I therefore call upon you, honored ones, to do all that you can to rectify this horror, and to strengthen the askanim who are working to place these children in appropriate schools, in order to save thousands of Jewish souls from descending to the depths. The merit of the community depends on you.”

Upon receiving the letter, the members of the Moetzes ordered Agudas Yisroel’s activists — especially Meir Porush, who serves as the Deputy Minister of Education — to get involved in the matter.

Rabbi Yosef Neeman, one of the Kaliver Rebbe’s emissaries in France, has recently been voicing constant warnings about what he has termed “a shmad campaign.”

“The Jewish leaders in France,” Rabbi Neeman related, “have recently put out an emergency call to the chareidi leadership in Eretz Yisroel, asking them to immediately open a network of chareidi schools for boys and for girls that will be suited to the families immigrating from France, where the children will be educated by religious, G-d-fearing teachers who speak French.” It is an excellent idea, but not one that can realistically be implemented immediately. Who could possibly establish an entire network of schools at a moment’s notice? This situation is particularly complex, since the French immigrant populace consists of different groups of people on varying levels of religious observance.

“This is a repetition of what happened to the immigrants from Morocco,” Rabbi Neeman declared heatedly. “None of us can claim that we are not parties to this bloodshed. As the new school year approaches, there is no religious school system in place for French immigrants, and all the efforts that have been invested in these children by their schools in France are in danger of being squandered.” Rabbi Neeman sees the actions of the Jewish Agency’s representatives in France as part of a deliberate, anti-religious campaign.

As always, Lev L’Achim has stepped into the forefront of the battle. Rabbi Eliezer Sorotzkin tells us, “Half a year ago, I was contacted by a number of avreichim who were originally from France and are now learning in Kollel Chazon Ish in Bnei Brak. At the time, those yungeleit told me that they believed Lev L’Achim needed to be prepared for the aliyah from France. They foresaw what would happen. They anticipated that the hysteria in France would lead to a massive wave of immigration.”

Indeed, the yungeleit’s predictions turned out to be prescient: The massive Jewish community of France, which numbers almost half a million Jews, is famed for its stalwart dedication to tradition and its warm feelings toward everything pertaining to Yiddishkeit. Unlike the realities in other large Jewish communities throughout the world, most of the Jews in France are considered religious or traditional, and the teachers in the many Jewish schools throughout the country provide their students with a broad base of Jewish knowledge and teach them to love Hashem, the Torah, and Eretz Yisroel.

In recent years, the trickle of immigration from France has become a flow, and about 8,000 French Jews are expected to arrive in Eretz Yisroel in the year 2015 alone. Every year, hundreds or even thousands of Torah-observant families uproot themselves from their communities in Paris, Marseilles, Lyons, and other cities in France to settle in Eretz Yisroel. In this, they are fully aided by the Jewish Agency, the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption, and various Jewish organizations. But how many of them have joined the Torah community of Eretz Yisroel?

Rabbi Sorotzkin heard the yungeleit’s arguments and began to act on them. Lev L’Achim’s network of school registration activists grew to include several French avreichim, and all the areas where French immigrants have been settling were mapped. It turned out that the Jewish immigrants from France have formed concentrations in several cities, living together in new communities. One concentration of French immigrants is located in the neighborhood of Har Choma in Yerushalayim, while the rest settled in a number of cities on the Mediterranean coast: Herzliya, Ashdod, Netanya, and Bat Yam. There is also a large concentration of French immigrants in Chadera. Under Rabbi Sorotzkin’s direction, Lev L’Achim’s famed registration apparatus began working with a special focus on these immigrants. “In a short time,” Rabbi Sorotzkin relates, “we achieved our goal, as many boys and girls enrolled in the Chinuch Atzmai and Bais Yaakov schools of Chadera, respectively.”

Last year, at Lev L’Achim’s annual post-Pesach convention, the subject of the French aliyah was one of the main topics of discussion. “We had received reports from the Jewish Agency indicating that about 12,000 immigrants would be arriving between Pesach and September 1. That is an enormous number,” Rabbi Sorotzkin says. “We therefore decided at our annual convention to have a special focus on the subject.” One of the main speakers at the convention was a rov from France.

During discussions of the situation, it was suggested that an information campaign could be launched in France itself to counteract the persuasion of the Jewish Agency workers. Perhaps, someone suggested, Lev L’Achim could have a system for registration for religious schools at the same aliyah fairs where the Jewish Agency workers were offering their own services. This idea was rejected, however, since it would have been seen as encouraging aliyah. Instead, Lev L’Achim increased its efforts among the immigrants in Israel, and a special department within the organization was established for this purpose, including activists working on school registration. One of the coordinators of the French section of Lev L’Achim is a member of the family of the Baba Sali, giving it additional prestige in the eyes of the immigrants from France.

“When we saw that the situation had become extremely pressing,” Rabbi Sorotzkin relates, “we went to speak to Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman. This is a very delicate subject, since we wanted to encourage them to come to Eretz Yisroel, but, at the same time, aliyah could be spiritually disastrous for them.”

Rabbi Sorotzkin adds that the value of academic degrees and the commitment to taking the Bagrut matriculation exams is virtually “embedded in the DNA of French Jews.” This made the situation far more difficult, since the subjects covered by the Bagrut exams are not taught in Torah schools in Israel.

French rabbonim, along with the Israeli rabbonim leading the French Torah communities in Israel, accompanied Rav Sorotzkin to his meeting with Rav Shteinman at the gadol’s home. The guests from France explained that the vast majority of French immigrants would insist on their children earning Bagrut certificates, even if it meant that they would have to attend irreligious schools. This would affect even elementary school children, since the parents were bound to ask whether the elementary schools would prepare the children for the Bagrut exams, and whether the Chinuch Atzmai and Bais Yaakov systems would lead to the students obtaining degrees. If the parents were not given a suitable response, the rabbonim predicted, they would fall prey to the representatives of the Jewish Agency, who were prepared to offer them exactly what they wanted, albeit not in a chareidi or religious educational framework.

The rabbonim from France were highly agitated. The majority of the children of traditional French immigrants were not being sent to religious schools. Their parents were struggling with the challenges of acclimating to a new land and struggling to understand the Hebrew language and the Israeli mentality. Immigrant parents do not always know how to seek out the school that is most suited to their way of life, nor are they aware of the situation in Israel’s public schools, which deprive their students of even the tiniest connection to Yiddishkeit. In most cases, the parents discover the terrible damage that has been caused to their children’s delicate hearts only after too much time has passed, when the damage can no longer be repaired. At that point, their return to Tzion becomes their children’s departure from the Torah of Tzion — the same fate that befell the immigrants from eastern lands during the initial years of the state’s history. These were the concerns that the rabbonim brought with them to their audience with Rav Shteinman.

“These are religious or traditional families, who saw to it while they were living in France that their children attended Torah schools, such as the Otzar HaTorah network,” Rabbi Sorotzkin explains. “Many of those children went on to become yeshiva students and bnei Torah. Some of them are learning in Ponovezh or Slabodka today. It was clear to these parents that their children needed to be given a Torah education, along with a grounding in the subjects required for matriculation. But now they are coming to Eretz Yisroel, and it is specifically here that their commitment to a secular degree is virtually forcing them to forgo the Torah part of the education, against the dictates of their consciences.”

Offering the children placement in the chadarim and ordinary Chinuch Atzmai schools in Eretz Yisroel, though, is also not a good option. These traditional or religious families are certainly not considered chareidi, or even close to chareidi, in Eretz Yisroel. But does that mean that their children should attend secular schools? Absolutely not.

But then what can be done for them?

“The gedolei Yisroel were asked if a high school should be established for young men immigrating from France,” Rabbi Sorotzkin says. “Rav Shteinman told us on several occasions that it is a very difficult question. Time after time, he didn’t want to approve the idea. We explained to him why it was so crucial, and he sent us to Rav Yitzchok Zilberstein, who listened to us soberly. On one hand, such a school is a necessity; it is the only solution the French immigrants will accept. On the other hand, it would be a breach of our standards and might lead some Israeli families to think that a ‘hechsher’ has been given to the notion of mixing yeshiva studies with general studies. Rav Zilberstein met with Rav Shteinman several times about the issue, and they agreed that he would meet with Rav Chaim Kanievsky as well. Recently, Rav Zilberstein went to Rav Chaim, who decided that a religious high school should be established for French immigrants, due to the extenuating circumstances. It is a hora’as sha’ah, not a lechatchilah.”

So what is going to happen now? Is Lev L’Achim indeed going to open a high school for French immigrants?

“We went back to Rav Shteinman with Rav Chaim’s decision,” said Rabbi Sorotzkin. “This was at vosikin. Rav Shteinman listened to Rav Zilberstein and heard Rav Chaim’s decision, and he seemed distressed. Finally, he said to us, ‘Nothing bad can come out of a decision of Rav Chaim,’ and the decision was accepted. There is no alternative but to open a network of high school programs for French immigrants. We will have to explain clearly to everyone that this is only an emergency measure and that it should not be viewed as permitting the establishment of religious high schools with general studies, that it is only being done bedieved. Rav Shteinman said several times that we must make sure this does not result in ‘weeping for posterity.’”

Do you share the opinion that the Jewish Agency workers are engaged in a campaign of shmad, like what was done to other immigrants decades ago?

“Every period in history is different,” Rabbi Sorotzkin says. “Back then, they took the Yemenite children, placed them in immigrant camps, and cut off their peyos, but today everything is more modernized and civil. Instead of an absorption camp, they are placed in nice apartments. And the schools are nominally religious, but the result is the same. When our registration activists go to speak with the parents, they actually cry. ‘Why didn’t anyone tell us?’ they demand. They see what happens to their children and they regret their decisions. The children are being driven away from Yiddishkeit now just as the Yemenite children were decades ago.”

Rabbi Avrohom Zaibald, one of the leaders of Lev L’Achim and the head of its activities in Yerushalayim, also describes the lightning fast preparations that the organization was forced to make. “We began by mobilizing French-speaking coordinators and registration activists right away. We ‘adopted’ the French community in Yerushalayim, opening two botei medrash in Har Choma. Avreichim who are originally from France come to those botei medrash to learn with the new immigrants. In addition, a group of avreichim from Kiryat Yovel in Yerushalayim come to these botei medrash as well.”

Rabbi Zaibald describes the naïveté of the immigrants from France, which has been to their detriment: “They don’t realize how destructive the state religious schools are. They need a lot of guidance on this subject. They have faith in Eretz Yisroel, and they think that because the schools are categorized as ‘state religious,’ they are similar to the Otzar HaTorah schools they know from France. They don’t realize that in Eretz Yisroel, not everyone who claims to be religious truly fits the description, just as not every sign that says ‘kosher’ is reliable.”

Rabbi Chaim Michoel Gutterman, director of Shuvu in Eretz Yisroel, was also quick to come to the aid of the immigrant children. Several days ago, when I spoke with him, he was actually in France. He spoke with me in the middle of a meeting with French school principals.

“I see the potential immigrants here,” he told me. “It is very interesting. Here you can find a child walking around with a large yarmulka on his head, while his father is bareheaded and the mother wears trousers. But both parents want the child to receive a Torah education — along with learning for the Bagrut exams.”

Rabbi Gutterman is familiar with the type from his work in Eretz Yisroel. Many of the students of Shuvu are exactly the same. The Shuvu school network promises its students a very high level of general studies, along with Jewish subjects. Shuvu students often win first place in mathematics competitions in Israel. “These children,” Rabbi Gutterman adds, “are generally Sefardim and do not have the external appearance of chareidim, but their commitment to Yiddishkeit is strong, at least in terms of what they know and observe.” He is referring, of course, to the laws of Shabbos, kashrus, and taharas hamishpachah.

He easily identifies the reason for the current situation. “What is happening now is exactly what happened years ago with the immigrants from northern Africa. The French Jews are coming to Eretz Yisroel, and since they do not appear to the government and to the Jewish Agency to be religious, and certainly not chareidi, their children are sent to regular schools. If that is allowed to happen, then they will definitely be lost to religion, which is exactly what happened then.”

Meanwhile, Shuvu has become a fitting resource for them. The organization was first founded on the initiative of Rav Avrohom Pam zt”l for the benefit of Jewish children immigrating from Russia. Now it seems clear that Rav Pam also foresaw that Shuvu would eventually come to the aid of a wave of Jews arriving from a different Diaspora.

“Several months ago, Rabbi Amouiel, the head of Otzar HaTorah, came to Eretz Yisroel,” Rabbi Gutterman relates. “Otzar HaTorah has a network of schools in France with a total of almost 5,000 students. He came here to monitor the progress of the hundreds of his students who moved to Eretz Yisroel, and he was deeply pained to see that they were becoming lost. He began to envision establishing a school network dedicated to French immigrants, and then someone made a connection for him with Shuvu.”

Rabbi Amouiel, as Rabbi Gutterman’s guest, visited several of the flagship schools of the Shuvu network. He visited schools in Netanya, Akko, and Be’er Yaakov, and was highly enthused. This was exactly what he had dreamed about: a Torah educational system serving students from families that were not chareidi, perhaps not even religious, but were traditional. Naturally, his next move was to ask Shuvu to come to the aid of the Jews arriving from France and establish a similar system for them.

The need for Shuvu’s help was obvious. Shuvu itself has been around for 15 years, and its accomplishments came through countless tribulations. Today, it maintains a network of about 70 institutions, running from preschool age through high school, with a total enrollment of about 7,000 students. Since its founding, its expenses have added up to $250 million. Every single building came after years of struggle and effort. Can anyone possibly launch such an endeavor today from the beginning?

“After Rabbi Amouiel investigated all the options, he sent me a letter summing them up,” Rabbi Gutterman relates. “He had reached the conclusion that Shuvu would be the solution for this burning issue. The immigrants in need are not those who are actually religious. They have schools such as Nesivos Moshe, and Lev L’Achim and its operatives are working hard to register those children in the appropriate schools. The children we are assisting come from families that are very similar to the immigrants from Russia and other countries in the Former Soviet Union, whom we assisted when they arrived.”

Is it actually happening?

“Absolutely. At the moment, dozens of French children attend our school in Netanya every day. We are inundated with students. The Jews from France, because of their mentality and personalities, prefer to live in the cities in the center of the country near the sea. We have schools in those cities, and that is why we are the right place for them to turn.”

In the school in Netanya, school registration among the French immigrants is carried out mainly by Lev L’Achim. Rabbi Gutterman speaks highly of the collaboration between Lev L’Achim and Shuvu. Naturally, the influx of new students has raised Shuvu’s expenses, creating a range of needs from the construction of additional prefab classrooms to recruiting French-speaking teachers and staff.

“French Jews,” Rabbi Gutterman explains, “are accustomed to living in unified communities. Our idea was to use the schools to build French communities. For that purpose, we also needed French-speaking rabbonim, who could connect to all the children’s homes through the school. It was almost like starting Shuvu all over again. There are half a million potential immigrants in France, and one cannot help but be astounded at Rav Pam’s foresight in instructing us to establish a network of schools. Twenty-five years after it was founded, Shuvu is once again saving many Jewish children’s souls.

“I am in France right now,” he adds, “and I can see that things are good for the Jews here, but anti-Semitism is also rising, and they have no alternative. The immigrants who are arriving in Eretz Yisroel now are those who are not financially established. The wealthier ones cannot leave so suddenly. And those financially weak immigrants are dependent on the emissaries of the Jewish Agency.”

Shuvu is now involved in a special campaign revolving around an appeal for funds for the proper absorption of the children of French immigrants. The project will entail major expenses that will not be subsidized by the Education Ministry, since they do not fit into its rules regarding the number of students per class, the hours of ulpan, and so forth. We can only hope that all the legal processes will have been concluded and the budget will have been properly allocated in time for the 5777 school year.

The pilot program in Netanya was a success. Forty children who immigrated from France have already joined the Shuvu school in Netanya and have been very successful there. Perhaps because of their example, or perhaps because of the efforts of Lev L’Achim’s operatives, new applicants show up at the school every day.

“Just yesterday,” Rabbi Gutterman remarks, “another nine families came to sign up their children.”

Another factor is the recommendation of Rabbi Amouiel, who is considered the foremost expert in the French community on Jewish education.

Rabbi Eliezer Sorotzkin describes how the school systems were established at lightning speed: “We registered dozens of children in schools in the yishuv of Kadima in Netanya, and in the school known as Nesivos Moshe. These classes reached their maximum occupancy. We also worked with Rabbi Avrohom Greenbaum, the founder of Yeshivas Nehora, to open a junior high school in Netanya. We are now working simultaneously on acquiring the necessary government permits and on acquiring a building for the school. We also worked with Shuvu and with their school in Netanya, which is a very successful kiruv school, and we managed to erect six prefab classrooms where the immigrant children can attend classes that conform to the spirit of the Shuvu network.”

The overall plan is to direct each child among the immigrant families to a place of study that is fitting for him or her. Children who are suited to studying in a cheder or Bais Yaakov will be directed to such institutions. Others will be sent to schools that are less chareidi. Those who are even less religious will be sent to Shuvu schools.

“The issue of the immigrants from France has been made the responsibility of chareidi Jewry,” Rabbi Sorotzkin thunders. “Professionals claim that there is a genuine, reasonable likelihood that all the Jews of France will move to Israel within the next five years. All it would take is one more anti-Semitic incident, chas veshalom, and masses of people who rush to come here. A school principal from France told me that 27 percent of his students have already moved to Eretz Yisroel. So many students have left his school that he no longer receives government aid, nor is he receiving tuition payments from parents. He maintained that if more Jews leave France, he will have to close his school for lack of funding. And others, then, will go to Israel as well…”

Everything that has been done until now, Rabbi Sorotzkin emphasizes, has been part of an emergency plan and a rush to find proper placements for the immigrant children before the beginning of the new school year on September 1. In advance of the next school year, though, it will be necessary to set up a system with the ability to take in new immigrants, and perhaps to establish an organized effort in France itself. But Rabbi Sorotzkin is convinced of one thing: “We are beginning a long period of absorption in Israel for the Jews of France. That is our challenge!”

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