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

French Refugee Drama Wins Cannes Top Prize

Dheepan is about a group of Sri Lankan refugees who pretend to be a family in order to flee their war-torn country for a housing project in France More

Photogallery Crisis in Macedonia Requires Meaningful and Swift Measures

The international community has called on Macedonian leadership to take concrete measures in support of democracy in order to exit the crisis More

Activists: IS Executes 217 Civilians, Soldiers Near Palmyra

British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights on Sunday said the victims include nurses, women, children and Syrian government fighters 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.
Turkey's Main Opposition Party Hopes for Election Breakthroughi
X
May 22, 2015 10:23 AM
Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party has sought an image change ahead of the June 7 general election. The move comes after suffering successive defeats at the hands of the Islamist-rooted AK Party, which has portrayed it as hostile to religion. Dorian Jones reports from the western city of Izmir.
Video

Video Turkey's Main Opposition Party Hopes for Election Breakthrough

Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party has sought an image change ahead of the June 7 general election. The move comes after suffering successive defeats at the hands of the Islamist-rooted AK Party, which has portrayed it as hostile to religion. Dorian Jones reports from the western city of Izmir.
Video

Video Europe Follows US Lead in Tackling ‘Conflict Minerals’

Metals mined from conflict zones in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo are often sold by warlords to buy weapons. This week European lawmakers voted to force manufacturers to prove that their supply chains are not inadvertently fueling conflicts and human rights abuses. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Class Tackles Questions of Race, Discrimination

Unrest in some U.S. cities is more than just a trending news item at Ladue Middle School in St. Louis, Missouri. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, it’s a focus of a multicultural studies class engaging students in wide-ranging discussions about racial tensions and police aggression.
Video

Video Mind-Controlled Prosthetics Are Getting Closer

Scientists and engineers are making substantial advances towards the ultimate goal in prosthetics – creation of limbs that can be controlled by the wearer’s mind. Thanks to sophisticated sensors capable of picking up the brain’s signals, an amputee in Iceland is literally bringing us one step closer to that goal. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Afghan Economy Sinks As Foreign Troops Depart

As international troops prepare to leave Afghanistan, and many foreign aid groups follow, Afghans are grappling with how the exodus will affect the country's fragile economy. Ayesha Tanzeem reports from the Afghan capital, Kabul.
Video

Video Poverty, Ignorance Force Underage Girls Into Marriage

The recent marriage of a 17-year old Chechen girl to a local police chief who was 30 years older and already had a wife caused an outcry in Russia and beyond. The bride was reportedly forced to marry and her parents were intimidated into giving their consent. The union spotlighted yet again the plight of many underage girls in developing countries. Zlatica Hoke reports poverty, ignorance and fear are behind the practice, especially in Asia and Africa.
Video

Video South Korea Marks Gwangju Uprising Anniversary

South Korea this week marked the 35th anniversary of a protest that turned deadly. The Gwangju Uprising is credited with starting the country’s democratic revolution after it was violently quelled by South Korea’s former military rulers. But as Jason Strother reports, some observers worry that democracy has recently been eroded.
Video

Video California’s Water System Not Created To Handle Current Drought

The drought in California is moving into its fourth year. While the state's governor is mandating a reduction in urban water use, most of the water used in California is for agriculture. But both city dwellers and farmers are feeling the impact of the drought. Some experts say the state’s water system was not created to handle long periods of drought. Elizabeth Lee reports from Ventura County, an agricultural region just northwest of Los Angeles.
Video

Video How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction

An international team of scientists has sequenced the complete genome of the woolly mammoth. Led by the Swedish Museum of Natural History in Stockholm, the work opens the door to recreate the huge herbivore, which last roamed the Earth 4,000 years ago. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble considers the science of de-extinction and its place on the planet
Video

Video Blind Boy Defines His Life with Music

Cole Moran was born blind. He also has cognitive delays and other birth defects. He has to learn everything by ear. Nevertheless, the 12-year-old has had an insatiable love for music since he was born. VOA’s June Soh introduces us to the young phenomenal harmonica player.

VOA Blogs