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

    New EU Asylum Rules Could Boost Rightists

    New regulations will seek to correct EU failures in dealing with migrant crisis, most notably inability to get member states to absorb a total of 160,000 refugees

    More Political Turmoil Likely in Iraq as Iran Waits in the Wings

    Analysts warn that Tehran, even though it may not be engineering the Sadrist protests in Baghdad, is seeking to leverage its influence on its neighbor

    Goodbye Ketchup, Hello Sriracha!

    How immigrants are triggering a great transformation in American cuisine

    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.
    Tensions Rising Ahead of South China Sea Rulingi
    X
    May 03, 2016 5:16 PM
    As the Philippines awaits an international arbitration ruling on a challenge to China's claims to nearly all of the South China Sea, it is already becoming clear that regardless of which way the decision goes, the dispute is intensifying. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.
    Video

    Video Tensions Rising Ahead of South China Sea Ruling

    As the Philippines awaits an international arbitration ruling on a challenge to China's claims to nearly all of the South China Sea, it is already becoming clear that regardless of which way the decision goes, the dispute is intensifying. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.
    Video

    Video Painting Captures President Lincoln Assassination Aftermath

    A newly restored painting captures the moments following President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in 1865. It was recently unveiled at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, where America’s 16th president was shot. It is the only known painting by an eyewitness that captures the horror of that fateful night. VOA’s Julie Taboh tells us more about the painting and what it took to restore it to its original condition.
    Video

    Video Elephant Summit Results in $5M in Pledges, Presidential Support

    Attended and supported by three African presidents, a three-day anti-poaching summit has concluded in Kenya, resulting in $5 million in pledges and a united message to the world that elephants are worth more alive than dead. The summit culminated at the Nairobi National Park with the largest ivory burn in history. VOA’s Jill Craig attended the summit and has this report about the outcomes.
    Video

    Video Displaced By War, Syrian Artist Finds Inspiration Abroad

    Saudi-born Syrian painter Mohammad Zaza is among the millions who fled their home for an uncertain future after Syria's civil war broke out. Since fleeing Syria, Zaza has lived in Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan and now Turkey where his latest exhibition, “Earth is Blue like an Orange,” opened in Istanbul. He spoke with VOA about how being displaced by the Syrian civil war has affected the country's artists.
    Video

    Video Ethiopia’s Drought Takes Toll on Children

    Ethiopia is dealing with its worst drought in decades, thanks to El Nino weather patterns. An estimated 10 million people urgently need food aid. Six million of them are children, whose development may be compromised without sufficient help, Marthe van der Wolf reports for VOA from the Metahara district.
    Video

    Video Little Havana - a Slice of Cuban Culture in Florida

    Hispanic culture permeates everything in Miami’s Little Havana area: elderly men playing dominoes as they discuss politics, cigar rollers deep at work, or Cuban exiles talking with presidential candidates at a Cuban coffee window. With the recent rapprochement between Cuba and United States, one can only expect stronger ties between South Florida and Cuba.
    Video

    Video California Republicans Weigh Presidential Choices Amid Protests

    Republican presidential candidates have been wooing local party leaders in California, a state that could be decisive in selecting the party's nominee for U.S. president. VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports delegates to the California party convention have been evaluating choices, while front-runner Donald Trump drew hundreds of raucous protesters Friday.
    Video

    Video Kurdish Football Team Helps War-Torn City Cope

    With the conflict still raging across much of Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast, between the rebel PKK and the Turkish state, many Kurds are trying to escape the turmoil by focusing on the success of their football team Amedspor in Diyarbakir. The club is increasingly becoming a symbol for Kurds, not only in Diyarbakir but beyond. Dorian Jones reports from southeast Turkey.
    Video

    Video ‘The Lights of Africa’ - Through the Eyes of 54 Artists

    An exhibition bringing together the work of 54 African artists, one from each country, is touring the continent after debuting at COP21 in Paris. Called "Lumières d'Afrique," the show centers on access to electricity and, more figuratively, ideas that enlighten. Emilie Iob reports from Abidjan, the exhibition's first stop.
    Video

    Video Florida’s Weeki Wachee ‘Mermaids’ Make a Splash

    Since 1947, ‘mermaids’ have fascinated tourists at central Florida’s Weeki Wachee Springs State Park with their fluid movements and synchronized ballet. Performing underwater has its challenges, including cold temperatures and a steady current, as VOA’s Lin Yang and Joseph Mok report.
    Video

    Video Somali, African Union Forces Face Resurgent Al-Shabab

    The Islamic State terror group claimed its first attack in Somalia earlier this week, though the claim has not been verified by forces on the ground. Meanwhile, al-Shabab militants have stepped up their attacks as Somalia prepares for elections later this year. Henry Ridgwell reports there are growing frustrations among Somalia’s Western backers over the country’s slow progress in forming its own armed forces to establish security after 25 years of chaos.
    Video

    Video Nigerians Feel Bite of Buhari Economic Policy

    Despite the global drop in the price of oil, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari has refused to allow the country's currency to devalue, leading to a shortage of foreign exchange. Chris Stein reports from Lagos businessmen and consumers are feeling the impact as the country deals with a severe fuel shortage.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora