Enrolling one’s children in a Jewish school has become an increasingly common choice for Jewish families in the Paris region. What changes have the schools undergone? What do they offer? Do the expectations of the new generations still correspond to those of their elders? Visit the “Choisir l’école juive” [Choosing Jewish Schools] association, which assists parents in their application process.
On Sunday 12 February, the fourth Choisir l’école juive (Choosing Jewish Schools) fair was held. Created about ten years ago by Élodie Marciano, a French entrepreneur who has since made aliyah, the association that organises it brings together a small, highly motivated and dedicated team that assists families considering enrolling their children in Jewish school. The founder recalls: “I created the association ten years ago now, in a context of increasing anti-Semitism in France and particularly in public schools. When we started, we thought we were helping children among our relatives, in our community. Ultimately, after 10 years, we have enabled nearly 5,000 children to enter Jewish schools.”
At the entrance of the exhibition, at the bottom of the escalators of the grand hotel, a first stand. Several smiling girls check the newcomers’ registration and hand out tote bags already filled with leaflets and goodies, including a Sidour for children. You then have to go around the reception desk to pass the long corridor that leads to the huge hall where the exhibition is held. In the corridor, several stands are surrounded by kakemonos signed by the Jewish Agency. Calls to join the Tsahal for a fortnight in Sar-El or the promotion of the Massa programme which allows internships in Israel. The range is vast. The shlihot are waiting for young people eager for adventure. In the background, clearly visible, is the stand of Torah Box whose offices are in Jerusalem. The famous website, which came online fifteen years ago, produces and posts hundreds of videos of ravs promoting orthodox Judaism and religious Zionism. The stand is overwhelmed by imposing columns of books published by the same site. The stacks almost hide the small table set up at the back, which is to be used for appointments with a guidance counsellor for the young visitors who will come this afternoon.
In the main hall, the stands are ready. With a coffee in hand, the representatives are enjoying the morning calm before the arrival of the many visitors expected – more than a thousand according to Élodie Marciano. The fair is an opportunity for them to meet old colleagues and perhaps to meet new ones. Very quickly, the first families arrive: in the morning, they are mostly young parents with small children. They come to ask about the gan or about the waiting period before joining one of the large school groups of the French Jewish school.
The latter are easy to spot: their stands are the largest and least decorated. There is no need to improve their reputation. On the tables, there are few leaflets and even fewer goodies. Each representative sits behind a small sign indicating simply the name and location of the school: Ort Villiers-le-Bel, Ozar Hatorah Sarcelles… The hardback brochure is handed out after a long discussion with the parents. At the ORT, BTS students presented their creations: jaw moulds or eyeglasses. The simplicity of the stands contrasts with the other, smaller and busier ones, where posters, leaflets and sweets are put forward to attract families and restore the reputation of these smaller schools, most of which are orthodox, some of them linked to the Loubavitch movement.
Between a “serene Jewish environment” and alternative teaching methods
The president of the association shares with us her knowledge of the field and notes a real change in the demands of families: “For several decades, parents chose the Jewish school out of conviction and the notion of learning Jewish subjects was paramount. For the last fifteen years, this has been much more difficult. As the security situation in public schools has deteriorated considerably and at the same time the anxiety of parents has increased, Jewish schools have had to respond to the expectations of a new public: traditionalist families, connected to a community, who are looking for a serene Jewish environment in which their children will be able to develop fully and live their Judaism on a daily basis. The fact that our Jewish schools have become educational references also attracts more and more parents.
Lastly, unlike previous generations, many parents who are not able to pass on the basics of Judaism and our history themselves rely on the school. They want their children to strengthen their identity and learn solid foundations for their own development.”
Our discussions with school representatives confirm this. The first argument of these schools remains that they offer a quality Jewish environment. But faced with new demands, the Jewish schools have tried to adapt. Their discourse is now similar to that of schools with alternative pedagogies, placing the pupil, his success but also his well-being, at the heart of their project. The smallest structures, sometimes distant from the Jewish centres of Île de France, emphasise the possibility of personalised follow-up, always in collaboration with the State, notably through the use of specialised educational assistants (A.E.S.), when the pupil can benefit from them. The heads of the schools are making openness their watchword, while recalling the personal nature of the families’ approach.
This Sunday, 90% of Jewish schools in France are partnering with the event. In her speech in the afternoon, while the fair was in full swing, Élodie Marciano was pleased with a “fair that reflects the community” where all tendencies, from traditionalists to ultra-Orthodox, are represented. In spite of some historical groups that are careful to maintain openness as the basis of their welcoming policy, it is nevertheless an orthodox approach to Judaism that dominates the fair. The visitor’s guide distributed at the entrance lists more than ten schools affiliated to the Loubavitch movement, seven of which are Orthodox or religious in nature, as opposed to ten traditionalist establishments. Faced with the outdated brochures of the Aix-les-Bains yechiva, who noticed the absence of the Modern Jewish School?
Towards a very Israeli international outlook
The affirmation of an international outreach, this time, first of all, “in the image of the community”, goes through Israel, the fair’s guest of honour. French-speaking schools in Israel and ulpanim are spread out in the aisles of the fair. The challenge for high school students who would like to make aliyah is clear: master the ivrit and pass the psychometric tests for entry into Israeli universities. In the Ozar Hatorah brochure with its blue and white stripes, the international programme has three components: English, Hebrew and psychometric tests. Indeed, the international focus remains mainly on Israel. This is evidenced by the association’s main partners: the Israeli Ministry of the Diaspora, whose representative gave a speech full of praise for Élodie Marciano’s company, the United Herzog, an Israeli organisation whose mission is to help Jews in the Diaspora and strengthen their identity through educational support and training, and the Yael Foundation, a young international Jewish organisation that is also involved in the Jewish educational world.
Nevertheless, the observation is the same at all the stands: the number of departures has largely decreased. The heads of the traditionalist establishments assure us that today, only a few of their graduates make aliyah once they have finished high school. On the contrary, they see more and more families, disappointed and deprived, returning from Israel. School fees and canteen are then offered to the children. The returns do not leave indifferent, neither the professionals nor the parents of the pupils. When we ask the school managers about the future of the young people, their answer is hesitant: “I don’t know. It’s complicated. Do they have a better future in Israel? Honestly, I don’t know! Because if they go there thinking it’s going to be like a holiday, it’s not worth it. Life is harder in Israel. Then, I think that it has to come from each person, it’s an individual approach. There are children, they are going to make their aliyah, it will work very well. There are others who will make it, it won’t work.” The cost of living is the first obstacle to settling in Israel. The economic reality and the risks involved in aliyah qualify the speeches of even the most convinced. Israel seems to have lost its aura and no longer appears as the country of all possibilities.
To the economic constraint is added that of security and the question of military service. While we are at the stand of a small establishment located in the extreme south of the country, the person in charge is trying hard to attract the attention of parents who prefer to keep their children with them in France, at least for a few more years. She explains: “When children come to us, I can’t say: ‘Look, don’t stay in France, there are attacks. In Israel, it’s better, it’s total harmony. I would be telling them a lie. I can’t say such a thing!” Where to turn then?
Is the American dream still a dream?
In this context, a third way has (re)emerged: the United States, represented today by the superbly equipped stand of Yechiva University. Founded in 1886, the prestigious private university was originally intended to provide both religious and secular education, including English classes, to Ashkenazi Jews who immigrated to Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The institution has since expanded to four campuses in New York and Israel. In the small screening room, isolated from the hustle and bustle of the living room, a promotional film is shown for those who are interested. It must be said that American Judaism expands the range of possibilities for the wealthy, educated, traditionalist families present: on the screen, girls in long skirts study alongside students in trousers. A former student, who now works as a representative of the New York university in France, adds: “American-style openness allows students to be close to their Jewish identity and to live it as they see fit.
This was followed by an exchange with the parents who see the international with a capital I for their children. The speech is straightforward. Whether or not they have studied in a Jewish school before, the students must first have an excellent level of English to integrate and succeed in the American programme: “In the United States, it is up to us to integrate with them. Not for them to integrate with us. So you have to work on your oral expression – an eternal weakness of the French – to succeed. But the game seems to be worth the candle. Many other advantages are put forward: generous scholarships (in comparison with other American universities), about sixty quality kodesh courses ranging from beginner level to rabbinical training and the possibility of validating one’s first year of training in a seminar in Israel. The American dream does not require that we ignore Israel.
When we ask the director of Choisir l’École juive how to understand this opening to an international that remains above all Israeli, Élodie Marciano answers: “Because the heart of French Jews vibrates for Israel, it is important to build a bridge between the schools in France and Israel. Many of our young people imagine studying abroad in the United States or in Israel. Personally, I think that this is certainly one of the keys to ensuring a bright future for them. That said, not all of them will be able to leave and it is our duty, as educational and community leaders, to do everything possible to offer them a quality Jewish education in France. And this is what emerges when we interview the main people concerned.”
The future in France
At the entrance of the fair, students from preparatory schools or young people who had come to present their holiday camp organisation had a much more nuanced view than their parents. None of them really envisages their future anywhere but in France. And it’s not for lack of thinking about it! On the contrary, all of them had thought about it for a long time before defending the “happiness of being Jewish in France”. Whether they went to a Jewish school or a public school, the young adults we met affirmed with conviction that they would not give up their place on the benches of French universities. None of them would, however, deny the antisemitism they were confronted with in school. But as long as it does not go beyond the condensation of ordinary racism, they prefer not to dwell on this “low-level” antisemitism.
Far from any political party, they look beyond: their city which they are attached to, their relatives and their future, both professional and personal – the success of the first one conditioning the second one. Both boys and girls, most of them from Sephardic families, reject their parents’ pessimism. Some even see ingratitude and resentment against “the country that welcomed them” and for which their grandparents sometimes gave their lives.
They agree on the refuge that Israel represents and do not hesitate to express a strong attachment to this country, ready to welcome them in case of danger. But while the older generation denounces the generalisation of an à la carte Zionism favoured by the multiplication of short programmes promoted, as we have seen, in the antechamber of the living room, the new generation defends, on the contrary, a cool-headed Zionism. This can be seen, for example, in the choice of many French high school students in Israel to hold on to a tourist visa, which allows them to postpone the (difficult) choice of aliyah until later. Keeping an exit route in case of failure does not alter their attachment to the country, on the contrary. They simply see in it the possibility of living a more peaceful Zionism that does not require them to give up: Israel is their state but France is their country. For them, one cannot go without the other.
Maëlle Partouche is a doctoral student at the University of Strasbourg and at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences sociales. Her dissertation focuses on the relationship between Zionism and Jewishness in France and the United States.