How Do You Say Jewish Peoplehood in French?

How do you say Jewish Peoplehood in French?
The answer is: you don’t
by Smadar Bar-Akiva

There isn’t such a word in French. Once again this demonstrates how very often the North America-Israel dialogue leaves out other countries and cultures. At the same time, when you dig deep down at what does Peoplehood or Amiut (in Hebrew) actually mean, French Jews fit right in. As individuals and as a community they strongly feel a sense of belonging to the Jewish People and a shared responsibility with other Jews. Moreover, as a new Israel-overseas paradigm that may challenge the centrality of Israel evolves, for French Jews this is not the case. Their personal and communal ties to Israel are unquestionable. In fact this “love without conditions”- as paraphrased by Jo Amar, the Director of Culture, Community Centers and International Relations for FSJU, France – may be a double edge sword as it can block a more sophisticated and realistic relationship with Israel and the Jewish world.

Therefore, expanding the engagement possibilities between French speaking Jews and Jews in Israel and around the world is crucial for a healthier and long lasting relationship. With several dedicated partners who have set Jewish Peoplehood programs for JCCs as a goal, a major breakthrough is taking place. As a first step, last week, Executive Directors and lay leaders from 9 French speaking JCCs partnered with a dozen community centers across Israel. Most of these partnerships are built upon the Sister City platform that already connects the cities at large, while others started from scratch.

The partnerships are:

  • Lyon – Beersheba
  • Montpellier – Homat Shmuel, Jerusalem
  • Neuilly, Paris – Herzlia
  • Yiddish Medem, Paris – Yung Yiddish Centers, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem
  • Nantes – Caesarea
  • Bordeaux – Safra
  • Ashdod Genève – Beit Lavron, Ashdod
  • Aix-En Provence – Ashkelon
  • Toulouse – Ramat Aviv Gimel, Neve Ofer and the Arab-Jewish Community Center, Tel Aviv

While the friendly ambiance permeated the entire week, it is interesting to note some of the conceptual differences that were raised. The role of the JCC is different in France and in Israel. Community centers in France were built and funded after WWII by the Fonds Social Juif Unifie (FSJU) with additional funding from the French government. Adhering to the strict separation between state and religion their main mandate is cultural. Whereas community centers in Israel, founded in the 70s, see their role first and foremost as community builders, the JCCs in France are not only open to the entire Jewish community but expose the richness of Jewish life to non-Jews as well. In Israel this is not the case. Community centers cater to different nationalities and religions based on where they are located. And just add to that the whole layer of differences between community centers in a Jewish state versus community centers overseas.

Another challenge is how to develop reciprocal and mutually beneficial partnerships. Not all Israelis had the opportunity to grapple with the Peoplehood agenda and may still be caught up in the paradigms of yesterday, where Aliyah and financial aid dominated the conversation. In addition, it is not easy to convey the value of Jewish life in France amidst recent trends of growing Jewish Muslim tensions. We learned that French Jews are torn between a love and appreciation of their home communities and fears of new realities that may shadow their future.

If we are indeed committed to Jewish Peoplehood, then there isn’t one right answer. Promoting Jewish life in Israel and around the world and augmenting our strengths can become our ultimate goal.

The French/Swiss-Israel Partnerships project is a joint venture of Fonds Social Juif Unifie (FSJU) France, the Israel Federation of Community Centers (IFCC), IACC, EAJCC together with WCJCC. Funding was made possible thanks to generous grants from the European Union and Euro Med, FSJU, WCJCC and the Louis Kraft Memorial Fund granted by JDC.

Smadar Bar-Akiva is the Executive Director of the World Confederation of Jewish Community Centers (WCJCC) – an umbrella organization representing more than 1,100 JCCs worldwide. Smadar can be reached at smadar@wcjcc.org