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November 6, 2015

Kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh (Parashat Chayei Sarah)

Angela W. Buchdahl

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We are in the last chapter of our first patriarch Abraham’s life.  It is a challenging time—he is old and frail, his beloved wife Sarah has just died, his son Isaac is barely speaking to him after the near sacrifice, and his other son Ishmael is estranged after Abraham had cast him and his mother out.  Tough times. 

Just two parashiyot before, in Lech L’cha, Abraham is given such grand promises by God: “I will make you a great nation,” and “I am giving this land to your descendants.”  But at the end of Abraham’s life, it seems that these promises of land or more progeny are not fulfilled and it’s unclear whether they will be.

At the end of his life, Abraham is wrestling with the same questions we worry about today—the continuity of the Jewish people.  Where will Jews live, and will future generations be Jewish?  I recently traveled on a mission to two cities at the center of these questions in Jewish Europe: Amsterdam and Paris.

Amsterdam has been a home for Jews since the sixteenth century, after the Spanish and Portuguese expulsions, and was a major center of Jewish life in Europe until the Holocaust.  We visited the Esnoga, an extraordinary sanctuary built by the Spanish-Portuguese Jewish community in the seventeenth century.  The architecture shows the self-confidence and wealth of the community—when built, it was the largest synagogue in the world and one of the biggest buildings in all of Amsterdam.  Today they struggle to get forty people on a Friday night, but the community proudly preserves the sanctuary and their Jewish library, the oldest in the world. 

We visited the Anne Frank House, and walked behind the actual bookcase that hid the entrance of the attic, where Anne and seven others lived in secret and silence for over two years before being betrayed by an informant and taken to Bergen-Belsen.  I was happily surprised to hear that this museum gets a million and a half visitors a year, the majority not Jewish. There is regularly a three-hour line people are willing to stand on to enter.  We met with the museum director and education specialist, both of whom are not Jewish. We heard about growing anti-Semitism in Amsterdam and their incredible efforts to educate against all racism and bigotry and to spread the message of Anne Frank’s resilience and belief in the goodness of people.

And we visited the progressive congregation in Amsterdam.  This was the congregation that Anne Frank’s family belonged to before the war.  The community invested in a new, big building five years ago, and they were thriving with services, b’nei mitzvah, and educational programming, including an encounter program with the Muslim students on the college campus just down the block, to forge greater relationships and understanding.  It was a hopeful picture.

We then traveled to Paris.  In preparation for the trip, I read Jeff Goldberg’s article in the Atlantic, “Is It Time for the Jews to Leave Europe.”  A very grim picture of the state of Jews in Europe and France in particular.  No doubt, things are very hard there for Jews.  France, with a half million Jews, is the third largest Jewish community in the world, after Israel and the US.  France’s Jews represent less than one percent of the country’s population, but accounted for fifty-one percent of all racist attacks last year.

We spoke with the head of AJC in Paris, Simone Rodan Benzaquen.  She said that she feels safe as a Jew living in Paris.  But when pressed a bit more, she admitted that she tells visitors not to wear a kippah walking around the streets of France.  And that when she picks up a cab at the airport, she won’t tell the taxi driver that she’s coming back from Tel Aviv.  “I guess this is the new normal,” she said. 

We met with a prominent leader of a Jewish organization who feels the public schools are not totally hospitable to his children, and sends his son to a Catholic private school instead.  His son said after the kosher supermarket massacre, “We should leave.”  When I asked him how he responded he said, “We are French.  We will resist.  We will stay.” 

Every synagogue, every Jewish center, the Holocaust museum, have heavily armed guards in front.  In some ways, it is a kind of reassurance—the government is taking this seriously.  But it has the effect of making you feel like a target every time you walk into a Jewish organization. 

But even with all these troubling trends, we ultimately left with a sense of hope.  We spent Shabbat at MJLF, a vibrant Reform synagogue led by a former Central intern, Rabbi Delphine Horvilleur.  She is one of only two female rabbis in France, and she and a colleague lead a congregation of over a thousand families.  On Friday, we walked into a packed service, everyone singing.  The two rabbis graciously did their sermon in French and then translated into English—the topic, “how things get lost in translation.”  We couldn’t have felt more welcome.  And at the end of services, an adorable bat mitzvah girl came up to lead Kiddush, and many other kids joined.  She is one of the almost a hundred b’nei mitzvah per year they have in this community.  What better sign of Jewish continuity than the promise of those children. 

Those are just a few snapshots of Jewish life in Europe today.  I felt fortunate to bring a mission from Central, and the Jewish communities felt so grateful to have the support of our visit.

Abraham worries about Jewish continuity, but he doesn’t just fret: he does something.  In this portion, he buys a burial plot for Sarah, thereby establishing a claim to the land.  And he sends his most trusted servant to find a nice Jewish girl for his son Isaac, to help ensure that there will be future generations in his family. 

We know that Jewish continuity takes work and effort, but I continue to be inspired by the way Jews have fought to keep Judaism alive all over the world for centuries.  Kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh—all Jews are responsible for another.  Together, we will help fulfill the covenantal promise of our people that began with Abraham and Sarah.