In France, Masorti struggles for a foothold

By Sue Fishkoff, JTA

PARIS – At 6 p.m. on a Friday, Rabbi Yeshaya Dalsace was in the kitchen making hummus. He had finished vacuuming the living room, where Shabbat services would soon start. The first worshipers to arrive were put to work setting up chairs and arranging platters of cucumbers and tomatoes.

Dalsace is the spiritual leader of Dor Vador, a 60-member Masorti congregation in Paris. Dor Vador is one of six congregations in France affiliated with Masorti Europe, the European equivalent of the North American Conservative movement.

On a shoestring budget, like the others, it is run out of Dalsace’s apartment.

“When I need to buy supplies, like books, I have to ask the members,” the rabbi said.

Unlike its North American counterpart, which has been losing members for more than a decade, the Masorti movement in Europe is growing.

Wedged between the larger and better supported Progressive (Reform) movement and the Orthodox establishment, which controls Jewish life in most European countries, the continent’s smaller Masorti congregations have growing appeal for younger Jews.

The growth is particularly apparent in France, home to an estimated 600,000 Jews.

Overwhelmingly Sephardic since the 1960s, when Jews from the former French colonies of North Africa poured in to replenish a community decimated in the Holocaust, French Jews tend toward the traditional. But their observance level is rarely as strict as the Ashkenazi-flavored Orthodox Judaism of the Consistoire, the country’s Jewish governing body, which controls access to rabbis, mohels, kosher meat and  burial rites.

Just 5 percent to 8 percent of French Jews identify as Orthodox, according to recent surveys.

“I like this philosophy better,” said 30-year-old Devorah Cohen.

Like many members of French Masorti communities, Cohen grew up in a Consistoire-affiliated synagogue but has spent the past four years with Dor Vador, which she said suits her lifestyle and values.

“They don’t say do this and don’t do that. They explain why,” she said. “I think Masorti speaks to French people more than the Consistoire.”

Yet in a country so dominated by one Jewish stream, few French Jews understand what Masorti is all about.

“It’s a chronic problem of the Conservative movement,” said Rabbi Rivon Krygier, a Conservative rabbi in Paris. “It’s difficult to position oneself in the middle.”

French Masorti Judaism is much more traditional than Conservative Judaism in the United States; it’s closer to the Canadian model.

“I observe kashrut, niddah, all the halachah,” said Dalsace, using the Hebrew word for Jewish law and referring to kosher and ritual purity laws.

A native Frenchman, Dalsace grew up Orthodox but became disillusioned with what he said was the Consistoire’s rightward march.

“I’m closer to Modern Orthodox, like most European Masorti Jews,” he said.

The major distinction from Orthodoxy is egalitarianism, though the Masorti congregation in Marseilles uses a mechitzah, or barrier between the sexes, during worship. The country’s Masorti movement also welcomes conversion, and is active in interfaith work and environmental issues.

France’s first Masorti congregation, Adath Shalom, was founded on the west side of Paris in 1987 by a group of 50 families that broke away from a Liberal (Reform) synagogue. When the Belgian-born Krygier was hired in 1990, newly ordained from the Conservative Schechter Institute in Jerusalem, some of the founding families left, afraid the congregation would become “too Orthodox,” Krygier recalls.

Now with more than 300 dues-paying members, Adath Shalom has outgrown its rented space and has more than 100 students enrolled in its 3-year-old day school, which is run in conjunction with two Liberal congregations.

Of France’s Masorti communities, three have rabbis and three are lay-led. The country’s newest affiliate, in St. Germain en Laye, a Paris suburb, joined in July, and a small group of young Jews in Paris are creating La Schule, a Masorti-friendly minyan, or prayer community.

Audrey Berkovics, 28, is among the younger set of French Jews trying out Masorti. She showed up recently for a picnic in Paris organized by Marom, the Masorti youth movement, where nearly 80 Jews in their 20s and 30s enjoyed sandwiches, wine and guitar playing.

“This attracts me, the joie de vivre,” Berkovics said.

But as someone who attends Chabad services and Consistoire-affiliated Orthodox synagogues, she also said some things “shock” her.

“Men and women mixed, women wearing tefillin – I’m not used to it,” she said.

Noemie Taylor, 27, is a Marom activist who also is involved with La Schule. Raised with no religion, like most citizens of this heavily secular country, Taylor became attracted to Judaism and converted through the Masorti movement in 2008. Her Jewish boyfriend broke up with her, telling her that converts aren’t really Jewish.

That’s typical of French Jews, she says.

“They’re very closed, I guess because of anti-Semitism and because religion is a private thing in France,” Taylor said.

Marom activities are organized through e-mail and Facebook, and range from group trips to Jewish exhibits and concerts to picnics and holiday parties. Masorti’s outsider status attracts intellectuals and spiritual seekers, Taylor and her friends say. The movement also draws single Jews looking for other single Jews.

“People come because it’s a good group of young Jews, not because we’re Masorti,” said Pierre Stanislawski-Birencwajg, 36. “Most young French Jews are not religious. In Marom, we introduce people to each other, we introduce them to a Jewish identity, and even to the religion. We try to adapt to how French people live.”

The French Masorti movement operates with little money or infrastructure. Membership dues at Dor Vador bring in just $18,000 a year, so Dalsace is a part-time rabbi. He supplements his salary by teaching, running the movement’s website and leading monthly services in Marseilles.

In order to rent the apartment that functions as his congregation’s synagogue – he shares the dwelling with his wife and five children – Dalsace had to pay the bank guarantee from his own pocket. He and his wife cook the Shabbat dinners for the congregation.

In the absence of enough rabbis, the French Masorti leadership is trying to train young adults as lay leaders. Taylor was part of a small group that met with the three French rabbis in May to set up a training program for this fall.

Several French Jewish foundations help out with funding, but there is little support from the North American Conservative movement aside from the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs, the umbrella group for some 250 Conservative men’s clubs. The federation’s executive director, Rabbi Charles Simon, has mentored several of the French Masorti congregations, raising funds to send them everything from Torahs to rabbinical students.

An additional challenge is attracting young Sephardim.

While half of Adath Shalom’s membership is Sephardic, and the Marseilles congregation much more so, the movement as a whole is identified as “an American thing,” Masorti activists acknowledge. La Schule, which has some Sephardic leadership, is trying to change that – but it’s still a struggle.

“I believe the Masorti movement has a future in France,” Krygier said. “But it will be a very big battle.”