The FJMC Mission to Southern France

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In March, Gail and I had the pleasure of traveling to France as part of the 2014 FJMC/Masorti Olami Mission to Provence and Cotè d’Azur. The main purpose of the Mission was to build relationships with the two Masorti congregations in that part of the world, Maayane Or in Nice and Or Chalom in Aix en Provence.

The Mission was organized by Richard Gray, a past FJMC International VP, in consultation with Rabbi Simon. It was led by Richard and Rabbi Carl Wolkin, senior rabbi of Congregation Beth Shalom in Northbrook, IL. Rabbi Wolkin was asked to participate since he has worked closely with the Masorti movement in the UK and has led more than 20 missions to Israel, Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. They coordinated with Masorti Europe President Joanna Kubar, a featured speaker at our 2013 Convention in Danvers, to make arrangements with the two congregations that we visited.

The week-long Mission included tours of historic synagogues, an internment camp in Les Milles, and several museums featuring the works of Cezanne, Chagall, and Matisse. Our tour group of 25 people included men and their wives from across FJMC, as well as congregants from Rabbi Wolkin’s synagogue. Everyone had a tremendous time and by the end of the week we had all developed close friendships.

But the highlights of the trip were our visits to the two Masorti congregations. In Nice, we attended Shabbat services on Friday evening and Saturday morning at Maayane Or, and the congregation hosted a wonderful Shabbat dinner for us with more than 80 attending. We were welcomed warmly and made to feel at home. Their Masorti siddur was in Hebrew and French, and most of the prayer melodies were familiar to us. We found that most of the congregants were Sefardi, having immigrated to Nice from Northern Africa; a small proportion of the membership was from Europe, Australia, etc. The congregation was established in 1996 (Rabbi Simon played an important role in helping them get started), and now serves more than 100 families in and around Nice.

In Aix en Provence, we met with the leaders of Or Chalom who briefed us on the history of the Jewish presence in the area and shared a very moving account of how they obtained their one Torah, which came from a small collection of scrolls in Prague that were remarkably saved from destruction during the Holocaust. They described themselves as a small but “mighty” congregation, having begun in 2006. They too have a large proportion of Sefardi congregants.

We learned from both congregations that there is a definite need within their local Jewish populations for non-Orthodox spiritual communities, and they are successfully filling this need. Nevertheless, organizing, growing, and maintaining a Masorti congregation in France is very challenging. Both synagogues were in non-descript buildings with no markings indicating that they were Jewish houses of worship (however in the interior of the buildings, the sanctuaries and other rooms were quite nice). Security is a real concern although they fortunately have not experienced any specific incidents of violence or other expressions of anti-Semitism. To a large extent they feel isolated from the rest of the Jewish community and from each other, although there are regularly scheduled meetings of the leadership of both Masorti France and Masorti Europe that they can attend.

Clergy support is also an issue. Mayaane Or has had a full-time spiritual advisor since 2010, Rabbi David Touboul, but he is pressed to serve all the needs of his congregation and is often called upon to provide rabbinic support outside of Nice. Or Chalom does not have any clergy, but they are fortunate to have one congregant with a strong background in Jewish studies and knowledge of liturgy who leads all their services.

Another challenge for them is finding and/or developing qualified leadership for their synagogues. We spoke at length with the leadership of Or Chalom about the steps that could be taken to organize a Board, delegate responsibilities, establish committees and recruit committee members, etc., but were told that the culture in Europe is not one of volunteerism. Congregants expect to be able to join a synagogue, show up, and have a fully functional religious institution waiting for them. While you may feel that this is not all that different than in North American synagogues, the situation in France, with its socialist culture and environment, is even less conducive to encouraging leaders to emerge and serve.

Both congregations seemed genuinely excited to have us visit them. We brought gifts – Mezuzot, Shoah Yellow Candles, and Shabbat soy candles. We all valued getting to know one another and gaining a better understanding of what life is like in each other’s synagogues and communities. We also explored a few options for how FJMC might be able to support them. One idea which resonated with everyone was for some of our clubs to work with their synagogue’s youth groups or religious schools to set up Skype or similar calls between our youngsters and theirs to foster international relationships that would benefit those on both sides of the ocean.

In recent years, a few men’s clubs have established relationships with selected Masorti congregations in Europe which have involved correspondence and calls/video calls to learn more about each other. Our Mission to southern France has served to emphasize the importance of these types of relationships. If your club would like to explore setting up a similar “partnership” with either the leadership of a Masorti congregation or its youth, please contact Rabbi Simon. Knowledge of French or other European languages would be useful (but not required).

I would also welcome your comments about our Mission or any suggestions you may have on additional ways to support or interact with these congregations. Any recommendations for future Missions would also be helpful, and please consider joining us!