Israel's French Jews: Making the Most of A Second Chance


by Zalman Nelson - Jerusalem, Israel

May 10, 2009

(lubavitch.com) More than 150 French Jews filled the Chabad Center for French Speakers in Jerusalem’s Gilo neighborhood on Thursday night to celebrate the Second Passover and its message of “It’s never too late” with Rabbi Yitzchok Chaviv.

Pesach Sheni, the second Passover, occurs on the 14th day of Iyar, exactly one month after the first Passover. In Temple times, it served as a make-up date for individuals who were unable to participate in the Passover offering, the idea being that it is never too late to change and repair, and that there are no lost cases.

It is customary to acknowledge the day by eating matzah.

“People were very excited about the concept of not giving up on your dreams and hopes, that it’s not too late and to try again,” said Rabbi Chaviv in an interview with Lubavitch.com. The three-hour matzah-based meal centered discussions about second chances, a notion that resonates well with these French immigrants who are starting over, this time in Israel.

Jerusalem is home to an estimated 30,000 French Jews who have immigrated in waves over the last ten years.

“The most difficult challenge I think the French immigrants face is adjusting to the difference between what they dreamed moving to Israel would be like and the reality,” said Chaviv who has developed his Chabad center’s services according to the needs of French immigrants.

“It takes a lot of work to rebuild your life in a new country where the language, the culture and everything else are new. With support and a communal, family approach, they do very well.”

He said that French immigrants in the last few years have tended to move to areas that have sizable communities of French speakers, supportive services, and familiar religious and cultural venues such as Chabad.

Sara Chouraqui is a graphic artist who moved from Paris, France to Jerusalem with her family 15 years ago. She told Lubavitch.com that living in Israel and schooling her kids there was a long time dream that took several years of adjusting to actualize.

“Living in Israel is wonderful, it just takes getting used to. Besides the language difference, the culture is very different. It’s a different way of thinking and pace of life. Having a supportive community that speaks your language, has been through the same acclimation, and knows where you are coming from makes a big difference.”

Rabbi Chaviv works with his brother Avraham Chaviv, a certified mohel, a full time coordinator and a team of 13 volunteers. He said the center offers daily prayer services, classes, and many individual study sessions according to need. His cell phone—the local hotline for questions of Jewish law for French speakers—handles in excess of 200 calls per month.

French Jews who haven’t had a brit milah, or may need mezzuzas and tefillin, help with yahrtzeit observance and kaddish recitation, find all the help they need with Avraham. Chaviv also offers regular day and weekend seminars in Judaic instruction, while uniting members and creating supportive friendships.

The center works to connect new immigrants to the land of Israel and its history, running regular educational tours throughout the country. Recent trips include a tour of the burial sites of famous rabbis and Jewish historical figures such as Rabbi Israel Abuhazera, the Baba Sali, in Netivot, Rabbi Isaac Luria, the Ari, in Safed, and King David on Mount Zion.

The French Speakers Center has become most known for its work in matchmaking, preparing brides and grooms, and marriage guidance and counseling. Regular classes are full and couple counseling sessions are in high demand. Even couples from the non-French speaking communities have begun turning to Chaviv and his staff for assistance.

“We’ve been able help people connect to their Jewish roots and have helped many singles find their matches,” says Chaviv, “The key has been the ongoing support, education and involvement we provide to couples.

Once beneficiaries of the French Center’s support, the Chouraqui family has followed Chaviv’s lead, opening up a division of the center in their own home in the Pisgat Zeev neighborhood, to support the influx of French immigrants which number as much as 20 percent of the area’s 70,000 residents.

“By now there are already many veteran French immigrants who help newcomers. We went through it, so we know what they are experiencing and what they need,” said Sara. “Besides help with settling and finding jobs, they need someone to tell them it’s okay, it will be fine and things work out. Hang in there.”

The Chouraqui family live in an apartment building with 150 families, all French speakers.

“Last Shabbat we made a special program for French speakers to build and emphasize unity and community. The whole building joined in and worked together. You can make unity here.”

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