By Toby Axelrod
Today in Europe, a wide range of creative and committed individuals are contributing to active and engaging Jewish life. Their stories are often untold and offer lessons for innovation in Jewish life, the abiding strength of Jewish identity and involvement in the face of challenges such as disengagement from the community, inclusion and anti-Semitism, and the fact that such challenges do not define or limit the ambitions of Jewish communities. In a new weekly series, eJewish Philanthropy will profile 10 Jewish community professionals who are building the future of European Jewish life. The series, written by journalist Toby Axelrod, is sponsored by Yesod, an initiative founded in 2016 that focuses on developing, connecting and supporting Jewish community professionals in Europe. Yesod founding partners are JDC, the Rothschild Foundation Hanadiv Europe and the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation. More information at www.yesodeurope.eu.
When Jonas Belaïche boarded a jet for New York to study at Yeshiva University (YU), he thought his Jewishness would be “the inner glue” connecting him with his American counterparts. “My being French was not going to be important.”
“And when I arrived, I understood how French I was.”
At home, the center of Jewish gravity was always traditional. In America “it’s the exact opposite,” says Belaïche, who heads international youth relations and manages the NOÉ incubator at the Fonds Social Juif Unifié (FSJU), the main social and cultural institution of the French Jewish community.
During his time in New York, Belaïche – who turns 35 this year – was exposed to “very different approaches to what it is to be Jewish.” He took this new understanding back to France, where today he reaches out to Jews of all backgrounds.
He calls his journey “an amazing adventure.”
Belaïche grew up in an orthodox family near Lyon, and lives today in a suburb of Paris with his wife, Elodie, and their three young sons. Their city has one Jewish school and three synagogues.
Both his parents worked in communal Jewish life, so it was only natural that Belaïche move in that direction. He started out as a counselor for Jewish summer camp, became a Talmud Torah Sunday school teacher and – after his studies at YU – earned a master’s degree in economics at the Paris School of Business.
At that point, his Jewish commitments were “on the side” – directing a Jewish summer camp, teaching and directing the Talmud Torah. His full-time job was in the financial sector.
But “at some point I felt disconnected with the place I was working in,” he recalls. “So, I decided to switch careers.”
The opportunity came when the Moadon Jewish movement in Paris was looking for a youth director. Belaïche worked there for a year before joining FSJU in 2017, as head of its revitalized youth action programs. He has been there ever since.
It was tough for Belaïche to leave the relative security of the financial sector, he admits. But so far, so good: He recently was promoted to deputy director of youth action programs. In that capacity, he reaches out to youth movements in France and abroad; offers training sessions; and encourages families to send children to summer camps and programs abroad.
With worries about anti-Semitism mounting, his family and friends waver between commitment to a Jewish future in France and moving to Israel. “For my wife and me, it has been a roller coaster: We spend six months speaking about whether we want to make Aliyah, and then the next six months wondering if we can afford one more room here in France.”
For the vitality of European Jewish life, a future for young Jewish professionals is key. And slowly, things are changing. “When I came to the FSJU, I was one of the youngest employees – by ten years at least,” says Belaïche. “Now I can see more people with the same path as me: people at the beginning of a career that could bring them more money, but who decided for one reason or another to work for the community.”
Among his inspirations are the people he has met through the Kaplan Fellows @Yesod yearlong in service programme. This has connected a select and diverse group of Jewish community professionals from across Europe to take part in a series of professional development and lifelong Jewish learning seminars, webinars and mentoring, and is part of the JDC Global Kaplan initiative.
“It is good to feel like you are not the only one on earth working for the Jewish community,” Belaïche says. “It is very inspiring to meet people my age – women and men with different backgrounds and very different ways of practicing Judaism.”
Together with his YU experience, these connections have served him well at FSJU, “one of the only places in France where you have everything from Chabad to liberal – the full spectrum of the Jewish associations – at the same table.”
“We have troubles, like every community unity has. But I believe we can play a good role as a bridge,” Belaïche says. “There will not be changes in Halacha [Jewish law]. But we can focus on changing the way people think, and accentuate what we have in common.”