Imagine going to school one morning and being bullied, taunted and picked on.

Now imagine that the bully isn’t a schoolmate, but your teacher. And the reason you’re being targeted? Because you are Jewish.

That’s just one of many anti-Semitic situations facing Jewish children who currently attend public schools in France. Other children encounter taunts of “dirty Jew” or have been made to eat non-kosher food by school officials.

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In the last decade, the number of anti-Semitic incidents has increased dramatically in France, according to the “2012 Report on Antisemitism in France” by the Service de Protection de la Communauté Juive (SPCJ), the Jewish Community Security Service there. The year 2012 saw an 84 percent increase in physical and/or verbal public attacks on Jews—from 171 to 315 cases in 2011, according to the report.

Some of these attacks have occurred in public schools to the youngest and most vulnerable of the Jewish population—children.

Students say they feel more comfortable in an environment that fosters their Judaism. (Photo: Elie Haouzi)
Students say they feel more comfortable in an environment that fosters their Judaism. (Photo: Elie Haouzi)

In a country that is home to nearly 500,000 Jews—the third-largest Jewish population in the world—the tense atmosphere has led to an exodus of Jewish children from public schools, according to testimony given at December symposium on anti-Semitism at the European Parliament, a governing body of the European Union. (Only Israel and the United States have larger Jewish populations.) The conference was co-sponsored by the European Jewish Congress, B’nai Brith International and the Inter-Parliamentary Coalition for Combating Anti-Semitism.

These kids then are sent to private schools—and not just Jewish schools, but Catholic and Protestant ones as well. Much depends on the cost of these educational institutions and their locations.

Started With a Phone Call

A new campaign in France aims to ameliorate the situation. Its goal is to provide a Jewish education to any Jewish child, regardless of their current grade, Jewish background or knowledge, or financial or social circumstances. Called École Juive Pour Tous (“A Jewish School for All”), the program is being offered by the Chabad school—École Chne-Or, the Shneor school—in Aubervilliers, France, about 15 minutes north of Paris.

Located in the Seine-Saint-Denis area, Aubervilliers is home to a large Muslim immigrant community from North Africa and parts of the Middle East, and also has an active Communist Party group. This mix has caused a disconcerting atmosphere over the years for Jewish residents.

But it was the murderous attack on the Ozar Hatorah in the southern French city of Toulouse in March 2012—in which three children and a rabbi (the father of two of the children) were shot and killed—that propelled the Shneor school into action.

Officials at the school, which was founded in 1963 by Rabbi Sholom Mendel Kalmenson—who was sent to France on shlichus by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory—decided the best way to combat the violence and honor the victims was to strengthen their community, and ensure that all Jewish children should be able to receive a Jewish education.

 Some of the girls pose for a photo … (Photo: Elie Haouzi)
Some of the girls pose for a photo … (Photo: Elie Haouzi)

“It came to our attention the astonishing number of Jewish children that are enrolled in public schools, the vast majority due to financial reasons,” says Rabbi Meir Simcha Kalmenson, who succeeded his father as director of the school. “Most of these children dream of attending a Jewish school, yet never imagined it was possible.”

Reaching out to those families and convincing them to make the move to a Jewish school began, quite simply, in the most basic way possible.

As Rabbi Eliezer Nisilevitch, the initiator of the campaign and an administrator at the school, explains: A teacher, Mushka Tevel, “opened the phone book and found a Jewish-sounding name.”

Tevel, also one of the project’s founders, asked the woman who answered if she was Jewish (she was), if she had children, and those children went to a Jewish school.

The woman replied no, so the teacher asked if they could get together and talk. Initially reluctant to meet with a representative from a Jewish school because she didn’t think her family could afford it, according to Tevel, the mother eventually relented.

“Her three children became the first students of the campaign,” says Nisilevitch, “and it has snowballed from there.”

In the last year alone, more than 150 children have since transferred into Shneor from public schools. Many commute long distances to get there every day.

 ... along with some of the boys. (Photo: Elie Haouzi)
... along with some of the boys. (Photo: Elie Haouzi)

“At the beginning of last year, we had three private bus lines that provided transportation for the children who attend the school; now we have 11,” says Nisilevitch, noting that some of the kids have up to a 90-minute ride each way.

The families involved say the ride is worth it, as the school has been a welcome change from what they had been dealing with before.

“Today, if I need to describe our journey, it is that Shneor has given us the opportunity to pass from purgatory to paradise,” says parent Sarah Fitoussi. “It is not just our children that they have saved, but a whole family.”

Student Chai Bensimon says he is finally able to relax now that he’s in his new school. “I feel good to be with Jewish friends. Now when I wake up in the morning, I want to go to school.”

‘A Whole New Dimension’

To accommodate children who did not grow up with strong Jewish educational backgrounds, the extended Shneor family has opened its arms to help. Veteran students spend their breaks assisting new arrivals with homework and lessons, and special Judaic-studies classes are being offered to get the children acclimated.

The school teaches the basics, such as the foundations of Shabbat, above, to students who come from various Jewish observance levels and backgrounds.
The school teaches the basics, such as the foundations of Shabbat, above, to students who come from various Jewish observance levels and backgrounds.

Shneor has even established a special graphic-design track for high-schoolers who need a different outlet. Those students will graduate with a degree in marketing and graphic design.

All of this, Nisilevitch says, “has added a whole new dimension and momentum to the school. Everyone feels responsible for the well-being and success of these children.”

Encouraged by the results so far, organizers are doubling their efforts to engage even more Jewish families to attend. To that end, they’ve taken out ads on local TV and radio stations, and in area newspapers and magazines to promote the “Jewish School for All” initiative.

“The Rebbe clearly states that each day a child is deprived of a Jewish education has an effect on his entire life, and this campaign has taken that message very seriously,” says Kalmenson.

However, a campaign like this doesn’t come without costs. Tuition runs roughly 400 euros a month, and most of these new students pay few, if any, fees—at most, just 80 euros a month to cover the costs of kosher meals during the school day. Noting this, officials have reached out to the larger Jewish community to support their cause.

Time out for a little old-fashioned jump rope on the playground. (Photo: Elie Haouzi)
Time out for a little old-fashioned jump rope on the playground. (Photo: Elie Haouzi)

Following its March 3 annual dinner, the school started an “adopt a child” campaign, which they’re hoping to kick into high gear this month. In addition to basic tuition, the funds will go to help underwrite resource rooms, tutoring, and additional social and educational needs faced by the new students.

The results are often immediate and palpable.

“The children who come here from public schools recount shocking stories,” says Nisilevitch. “The parents who are part of this campaign continually express how their children now feel a sense of security, and are happy and smiling.”