For French Jewry, ‘community’ uncomfortable concept

It’s hard to think of a more innocuous word for most American Jews than “community.” But in France, things aren’t so simple.

France’s national ethos frowns upon displays of ethnic difference. So for many French Jews, the word “community” conveys a sense of separatism and insularity that clashes with the way they see their lives: French first, Jewish second.

That, in turn, causes headaches for France’s Jewish community centers — or “centres communautaires,” as they are known.

“When you say ‘Jewish community,’ it’s considered segregation and then it’s not French enough,” said Smadar Bar-Akiva, executive director of the World Confederation of Jewish Community Centers. “It’s interesting because in other countries, community is the most important thing.”

The issue is distracting enough that the Fonds Social Juif Unifie, or FSJU — the umbrella group that coordinates most aspects of communal French Jewish life — is considering changing the name of the centers, removing the emphasis on community and stressing something that better reflects the facilities’ commitment to culture and identity.

“We’re working now on improving the image of the JCC,” said Jo Amar, the FSJU’s director of cultural action. “We feel for a long time that we have a problem.”

Though plans for change are far from set in stone, representatives of some French community centers said that a shift could be welcome.

“The spirit is to find a balance between community center and cultural center,” said Sharon Mohar, an Israeli transplant who coordinates cultural efforts for a center serving the 2,000-family Jewish community in Bordeaux.

The question is also tied to how the centers relate to non-Jews. Mohar recalled an instance in which some older members of his community cautioned against allowing non-Jews to attend a community-run preschool, fearing that they would scare away Bordeaux Jews. Instead, she found that a policy of openness ended up appealing to Jews.

“In 2011, most people are just people, and it’s not that it’s less important for them to keep Jewish … but I think they are truly trying to find a balance between this part and the rest,” she said. “The balance is critical — [otherwise], we’re talking about a ghetto, and that’s not the reality people want.”

Ilan Levy, who coordinates cultural programs for the 3-year-old Hillel building serving the Jewish community in Lyon, France’s second-largest city, said Jews tend to be more apt to attend events that target non-Jews, too.

“If we make events for all the people, then the others come and the Jews say, ‘Oh, if the others come, then we can go,’ “ Levy said.

At France’s largest Jewish community center in Paris — catering to the country’s largest Jewish community — there is a renewed focus on bringing in new audiences and interacting with them virtually, said Jean-Francois Strouf, the center’s communications coordinator.

The center is developing an online university teaching Jewish and non-Jewish topics. The first of its kind in France, the project recently received funding from the Paris regional government and should be operational by 2013.

The facility prides itself on providing the Paris community with a well-rounded slate of programming — not discriminating on the basis of religion or, within Judaism, by denomination.

“It appears that a community center in the United States is a kind of private club,” said the facility’s director, Rafy Marceanu, citing sometimes high membership fees and perks such as pools and fitness centers. “In France it is the place of all Jews, and everybody finds his place.”

Regarding the larger rethinking of JCCs’ identities, the FSJU’s plan is still a work in progress, and each center will have the ability to make its own choices about any future name change. But Amar said the conversation is still worth having.

“We want to put it on the table and revisit the whole notion,” he said.