A letter from Paris chronicles events



Last Jan. 15 my wife Sandy received a nine-page email from Tom Cohen, rabbi of  Paris’ Kehilat Gesher, La synagogue franco-americaine de Paris.

The email wound up in my wife’s inbox because Rabbi Cohen is a first cousin of our close friend, who happens to have stood as maid of honor at our wedding 47 years ago. Knowing that we would want to read Cohen’s letter in its entirety, she forwarded it to us.

The press of events compelled Cohen to compose his email, dated Jan. 14, in the form of what he calls “an impersonal group letter.”  Writing a week after the 12 murders at the editorial office of the satirical newspaper, Charlie Hebdo, and just five days after the murder of four Jewish hostages at a kosher supermarket, Cohen’s words are filled with sorrow and pain as well as insight and affirmation.

One of the most moving sections of his letter concerns his decision to hold Shabbat services on Friday evening, Jan. 9, just hours after the slaying of the four Jewish hostages. The power of the rabbi’s pen brought me into the crowd of worshippers at his synagogue on that fateful Shabbat: “I felt that it was very important for us to maintain our Shabbat services – even if other congregations might decide otherwise. We hired private guards, and heavily armed police in bulletproof vests were making the rounds between Kehilat Gesher and a neighboring Orthodox shul on the next street ...

“My little shteibl was packed. The atmosphere at Kehilat Gesher was at once spiritual and electric.  Fear and pride intermingle in our prayers ...

“Everyone there felt to the depths of their Jewish soul that the simple act of praying together was an act of defiance – it was an act of resistance and resilience.”  Echoes of Barrington’s Jewish community coming together for Shabbat worship at Temple Habonim in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.

While Cohen affirms his pride in being part of the French people, while he tells of his powerful sense of national unity in the spontaneous singing of the national anthem, la Marseillaise, during the huge rally in Paris on Sunday afternoon, Jan. 11, he remains clear-sighted in his criticism of those politicians who have “willfully overlooked creeping extremism in certain neighborhoods in France for expediency purposes, economic benefit and simply votes. They abandoned prisons to Islamists, creating a festering breeding ground for jihadists. They became wobbly and cowed when confronted by violence and racism in schools.”

Cohen also points an accusing finger at those French journalists who have managed to dull the edges of a harsh and brutal reality by softening their language: “Extremists and their followers become the ‘youth from the suburbs’ ” – as if calling violent extremists “youth from the suburbs” somehow reduces the existential threat to the citizens of France.

If any good can come from this recent carnage, Cohen suggests, it might be that these murders will serve as “a wakeup call that has aroused many to finally start realizing that Islamist fascist groups’ intimidation is real and its reach is widespread.”

There is a major strand of Zionist ideology called in Hebrew shelilat ha-tefutsah, negation of the diaspora. To this way of thinking, Jews who live anywhere other than the State of Israel are living in galut, the Hebrew word for “exile.”  There are those who would argue that the current situation in which French Jews find themselves is indicative of the fundamental incompatibility of the realities of the diaspora environment with a healthy and fulfilling Jewish life; those holding this perspective argue that the Jews of France should go “home” to Israel.

Cohen stands vigorously against this claim that the Jews of France are doomed and should therefore go “home” to Israel. Commenting on the warmly received talk by Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at Paris’ Rothschild synagogue, the rabbi writes: “For me, a telling moment was Netanyahu’s appeal to French Jews that they ‘should’ come home ... with the diplomatic response of the Prime Minister Manuel Valls saying that ‘France without its Jews will no longer be France.’

“Yet at the end of that evening ceremony where Netanyahu was so warmly welcomed, those same attendees started singing la Marseillaise.”

Clearly, Cohen does not subscribe to the notion of negating the diaspora. Rather, he favors that version of the Zionist idea espoused about a century ago by Ahad Ha-Am (1856-1927), a view which affirms the importance of both Israel and the diaspora, a view which stresses their mutual interest in supporting a strong Jewish identity the world over.

As he draws his letter to a conclusion, the rabbi warns “what has happened in Paris can happen anywhere in the civilized world. The only real way to fight it is by sticking together. Giving up is not going to solve the problem, only perhaps compound it.”

Having looked unflinchingly at the face of the enemy, Rabbi Tom Cohen remains firmly committed to remaining in France: “I’m not packing my bags yet. I still have too much work to do here.”

JAMES B. ROSENBERG is rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim in Barrington. Contact him at rabbiemeritus@templehabonim.org.