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Witnessing joyous French aliyah — and hoping Diaspora can be sustained

(L-R): Tucsonans Bobby Present, Fran Katz and Deborah Oseran in Paris on the Jewish Federations of North America Campaign and Directors Mission in July.

This July, as incoming 2017 Campaign chair for the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona, I had the opportunity, with my husband, Bobby Present, and Fran Katz, JFSA senior vice president, to participate in a Jewish Federations of North America Campaign and Directors Mission to France and Israel. The emotional climate in the two countries, and their respective responses to the recent spate of terrorist acts, could not be more different — but were the same in one respect: both, in partnership with the Joint Distribution Committee, a JFNA partner, had the ability to immediately deploy the expertise of the Israel Trauma Center in addressing the psychological upheaval resulting from these attacks.

As we met in Paris with millennials, Jewish community leaders and religious leaders, we listened to their concerns, motivated in some instances by their Jewish and cultural experiences, and in other cases by their diminishing expectations. With 22 percent unemployment and a backward-looking business climate, they asked, what can we, as young entrepreneurs, hope to achieve? As young single Jews looking to build communal life and success for our future, what are our opportunities in a society where we can no longer comfortably wear a Star of David or a kippah going to and from university classes? How can we restore harmony in our neighborhood, comprised for decades of Jewish and Arab Tunisian and Moroccan immigrants, when the newer Muslim immigrants and younger generations of French Arabs want all of our activities and commerce separated? Despite the interfaith programming promoted by rabbis and the French government’s designating an inter-ministerial delegate for the recently-established Fight Against Racism and Anti-Semitism plan, many French Jews have made the decision to emigrate to Israel.

Those choosing aliyah (immigration to Israel) are as diverse a group as their reasons for taking this drastic measure. Many of the families already have relatives in Israel and always planned to move to Israel “someday.” The target date for their relocation was greatly accelerated by the Hyper Cacher kosher market bombings in January 2015, while others seek better economic opportunities and would emigrate to the United States if it were as easy as returning to the homeland.

We attended a ceremony in a packed auditorium where some 50 families listened intently to the Israeli ambassador extend a mazel tov on their decision to make aliyah — a decision supported, in part, by our annual Campaign allocations. With the other participants in our mission, we had the moving opportunity to present these families with their Israeli passports. In typical Israeli fashion, the solemn proceedings concluded with a raucous party led by an Israeli singer and much dancing. A lovely young French couple and their little girl twirled to near collapse. Others of the olim (immigrants to Israel), dressed conservatively as religious Jews, departed the festivities when the mixed dancing began.

As excited as we were for the olim, I could not help but question what would happen to the magnificent tradition of the French Jewry when there are simply no Jews left in France. Has the message of tolerance brought from Buchenwald to Paris as the City of Light by Eli Wiesel been extinguished by his death? As the historic anti-Semitism of one strand of the French public combines with the influx of more radical elements from the Middle East and North Africa to create a hostile environment for Jewish culture, one can hardly question the motives of the Jews leaving France. On the other hand, what does this mean for the Jews remaining in France and for all Jews in the Diaspora? Will our annual Campaign meet the challenge of supporting the much-needed resiliency of Diaspora communities in order that they may be sustained?

From France we traveled to Tel Aviv with one of the families making aliyah. We were welcomed with a homecoming ceremony for this family of olim, now in a land where Jewish traditions such as blessing the challah and wine can be openly practiced. In Israel, we were greeted with the vibrancy of the country, and especially the millennials — entrepreneurial,  committed to social action and improving the plight of the vulnerable of all religions, races and creeds (sometimes with seed money for both for-profit and nonprofit start-ups provided by the Jewish Agency with help through our Campaign), and the IDF soldiers — engaged in threatening work, but at the same time upbeat and using their skills to help the disadvantaged, like those soldier-musicians giving of their free time to Sulamot, Music for Social Change (funded, in part by the Jewish Agency), working with street children to foster their participation in youth orchestras. We were heartened to find that Israel continues to provide opportunities both for sabra (native) Israelis and those seeking a better life, emigrating from war-torn and poor countries, as well as from highly-educated western European countries and the Americas.

What did I learn so far from home? That all our Campaign work is truly local — whether experienced in Tucson, Paris or Tel Aviv. We in the Jewish Federations of North America family are the human shields for the most vulnerable among us — may we continue to strengthen community development and personal and community resilience to achieve the sustainability of our Jewish communities for the benefit of all.

Deborah Oseran is chair of the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona 2017 Community Campaign,  a partner in the law firm of Mendelsohn, Oseran & Spencer, PLC and a founder of the JFSA’s Cardozo Society of judges, attorneys and law students.