News / Europe

French Jews Search for New Grand Rabbi

Chief Rabbi of France Gilles Bernheim leaves after a meeting at the Elysee Palace in Paris December 16, 2011.
Chief Rabbi of France Gilles Bernheim leaves after a meeting at the Elysee Palace in Paris December 16, 2011.
Lisa Bryant
The search is on for a new chief rabbi to lead Europe's largest Jewish community, after Grand Rabbi Gilles Bernheim of France took leave from his post following a plagiarism scandal.  The issue is dividing France's 600,000-member Jewish community.

At his Paris apartment, Rabbi Yeshaya Dalsace showed a visitor mementos from his ancestors: Jews from eastern France. Dalsace comes from a long line of Ashkenazi Jews from Eastern Europe who traditionally led French Judaism. France's top rabbi, Gilles Bernheim, shares those same ethnic origins.

But that's where the similarities end. Dalsace belongs to the more centrist Conservative branch of Judaism. Bernheim is an Orthodox Jew, the branch that now dominates French synagogues and leadership structure.

That structure was shaken earlier this month, when Bernheim took leave from his post as grand rabbi of France, after admitting to plagiarizing certain texts and not being truthful about his academic credentials.

Disappointment

Dalsace said Bernheim's departure has disappointed many practicing Jews. They had high hopes that Bernheim would change many things, including the Central Consistory, the chief religious authority that gathers hundreds of synagogues in France and its overseas territories. Critics say the consistory is slow to reform and to respond to practical issues facing Jews today, like mixed marriages.

A bookish intellectual, Bernheim is viewed as embracing a more "modern" strain of Orthodox Judaism. He has spoken out often against anti-Semitism in France and has been a leader in inter-faith dialogue.

Martine Cohen, a specialist on Judaism at the Group on Society, Religion and Secularity, a Paris-based research organization said that despite his strong Orthodoxy, Bernheim attracted a certain consensus among intellectuals, and even among some non-practicing and non-believing Jews.  Cohen added that he advocated the need to be open to current issues facing society.

Change

Judaism in France has changed dramatically over the last few decades. During the 1950s and '60s, tens of thousands of Sephardic Jews from North Africa immigrated here. They were more traditional than many of France's Ashkenazi Jews. France's previous grand rabbi, Tunisian-born Joseph Sitruk, personified this change.

But in 2008, Bernheim took over the top post from Sitruk, after a hard-fought campaign.

According to Cohen, that campaign underscored the two currents of Orthodox Judaism in France. The one embraced by Bernheim, she said, is open to inter-religious dialogue, social issues and women's place in the religion. The other, an "ultra-Orthodox" current embraced by Sitruk, is more inward looking.

Cohen believes these competing visions will again come to the fore as French Jews search for a new top rabbi.

Support

One of Bernheim's supporters is Nathalie Cohen-Beizermann, who holds senior posts in several Jewish organizations.

Cohen-Beizermann said Bernheim has done enormous things for the Jewish community. He advanced the status of Jewish women, in terms of religious divorce and other matters. He also helped organize a women's study center and supported a campaign to fight violence against women within the community.

France's Grand Rabbi Joseph Sitruk speaks to the French Jewish community in Paris March 13, 2008.France's Grand Rabbi Joseph Sitruk speaks to the French Jewish community in Paris March 13, 2008.
x
France's Grand Rabbi Joseph Sitruk speaks to the French Jewish community in Paris March 13, 2008.
France's Grand Rabbi Joseph Sitruk speaks to the French Jewish community in Paris March 13, 2008.
Ultra-Orthodox Lubavitch Rabbi Mendel Azimov praised both Bernheim and his predecessor, Sitruk.

"Both were great. Both had advantages," he said. "One [Sitruk] was closer to the nation. The other [Bernheim] was a little further, but gave very strong statements."

Azimov said he would be happy if either type of personality became the next grand rabbi.

But Dalsace is disappointed in Bernheim. He opposes the grand rabbi's strong and public opposition to the French government's plans to legalize gay marriage.  He believes the Jewish leadership should not take a stance on political issues.

Dalsace said Bernheim's views are all the more surprising since the grand rabbi initially reached out to gays within the Jewish community. Dalsace believes this kind of reaching out is necessary, if France is to build a more open and inclusive brand of Judaism. But he does not think this will happen.

The Central Consistory said elections for the next grand rabbi will not be held for at least six months. It is also unclear whether Benheim can or will return to his post, as some Jews hope will happen.

You May Like

On Everest, Helicopters Rescue Stranded Climbers

Choppers transport some of more than 100 mountaineers trapped after deadly quake, avalanches More

Video Ten Years After Riots, France Searches for Answers to Neglected Suburbs

In 2005, a Paris suburb exploded into violence after two teenagers were electrocuted as they hid from police; since then, somethings have changed, others not More

US, Japan Announce Historic Revision of Defense Cooperation Guidelines

Nations say new guidelines will be 'cornerstone for peace and security' in Asia-Pacific region while also serving as 'platform for a more stable international security environment' More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
‘Angel of the Migrants’ Helps Desperate Syrians Arriving in Europei
X
Henry Ridgwell
April 26, 2015 10:36 PM
Waves of migrants are continuing to arrive on the shores of southern Italy from North Africa. After their dangerous journey across the Mediterranean, they face an unknown future in Europe. In the Sicilian city of Catania there is an activist dedicated to helping the refugees on their journey.
Video

Video ‘Angel of the Migrants’ Helps Desperate Syrians Arriving in Europe

Waves of migrants are continuing to arrive on the shores of southern Italy from North Africa. After their dangerous journey across the Mediterranean, they face an unknown future in Europe. In the Sicilian city of Catania there is an activist dedicated to helping the refugees on their journey.
Video

Video Ten Years After Riots, France Searches for Answers to Neglected Suburbs

January’s terrorist attacks and fears of more to come are casting a spotlight on France’s neglected suburbs. Home to many immigrants, and sometimes hubs of crime, they were rocked by rioting a decade ago. Lisa Bryant visited the Paris suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois, where the 2005 violence first broke out, and has this report about what has changed and what has not.
Video

Video Gay Marriage Goes Before US Supreme Court

This week, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments on whether gay people have a constitutional right to marriage. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports, the case could lead to the nationwide legalization of same-sex marriage, or a continuation of the status quo in which individual states decide whether to recognize gay unions.
Video

Video Study: Insecticide Damaging Wild Bee Populations

A popular but controversial type of insecticide is damaging important wild bee populations, according to a new study. VOA’s Steve Baragona has more.
Video

Video Data Servers Could Heat Private Homes

As every computer owner knows, when their machines run a complex program they get pretty hot. In fact, cooling the processors can be expensive, especially when you're dealing with huge banks of computer servers. But what if that energy could heat private homes? VOA’s George Putic reports that a Dutch energy firm aims to do just that.
Video

Video Cinema That Crosses Borders Showcased at Tribeca Film Festival

Among the nearly 100 feature length films being shown at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival in New York City are more than 20 documentaries and features with international appeal, from a film about a Congolese businessman in China, to documentaries shot in Pakistan and diaspora communities in the U.S., to a poetic look at disaffected South African youth. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more.
Video

Video UN Confronts Threat of Young Radicals

The radicalization and recruitment of young people into Islamist extremist groups has become a growing challenge for governments worldwide. On Thursday, the U.N. Security Council heard from experts on the issue, which has become a potent threat to international peace and security. VOA’s Margaret Besheer reports.
Video

Video Growing Numbers of Turks Discover Armenian Ancestry

In a climate of improved tolerance, growing numbers of people in Turkey are discovering their grandmothers were Armenian. Hundreds of thousands of Armenians escaped the mass deportations and slaughter of the early 1900's by forced conversion to Islam. Or, Armenian children were taken in by Turkish families and assimilated. Now their stories are increasingly being heard. Dorian Jones reports from Istanbul that the revelations are viewed as an important step.
Video

Video Migrants Trek Through Western Balkans to Reach EU

Migrants from Africa and other places are finding different routes into the European Union in search of a better life. The Associated Press followed one clandestine group to document their trek through the western Balkans to Hungary. Zlatica Hoke reports that the migrants started using that route about four years ago. Since then, it has become the second-most popular path into Western Europe, after the option of sailing from North Africa to Italy.
Video

Video US Businesses See Cuba as New Frontier

The Obama administration's opening toward Cuba is giving U.S. companies hope they'll be able to do business in Cuba despite the continuation of the U.S. economic embargo against the communist nation. Some American companies have been able to export some products to Cuba, but the recent lifting of Cuba's terrorism designation could relax other restrictions. As VOA's Daniela Schrier reports, corporate heavy hitters are lining up to head across the Florida Straits - though experts urge caution.
Video

Video Kenya Launches Police Recruitment Drive After Terror Attacks

Kenya launched a major police recruitment drive this week as part of a large-scale effort to boost security following a recent spate of terror attacks. VOA’s Gabe Joselow reports that allegations of corruption in the process are raising old concerns about the integrity of Kenya’s security forces.
Video

Video Japan, China in Race for Asia High-Speed Rail Projects

A lucrative competition is underway in Asia for billions of dollars in high-speed rail projects. Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Malaysia Thailand and Vietnam are among the countries planning to move onto the fast track. They are negotiating with Japan and the upstart Chinese who are locked in a duel to revolutionize transportation across Asia. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman in Bangkok has details.
Video

Video Scientists: Mosquitoes Attracted By Our Genes

Some people always seem to get bitten by mosquitoes more than others. Now, scientists have proved that is really the case - and they say it’s all because of genes. It’s hoped the research might lead to new preventative treatments for diseases like malaria, as Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Bible Museum Coming to Washington DC

Washington is the center of American political power and also home to some of the nation’s most visited museums. A new one that will showcase the Bible has skeptics questioning the motives of its conservative Christian funders. VOA religion correspondent Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Afghan First Lady Pledges No Roll Back on Women's Rights

Afghan First Lady Rula Ghani, named one of Time's 100 Most Influential, says women should take part in talks with Taliban. VOA's Rokhsar Azamee has more from Kabul.

VOA Blogs