Rabbi Hillel Pevzner was known to wear many hats. For much of the 60-plus years that the late rabbi lived in France, he was a teacher of an advanced yeshivah class, a day-school administrator, a sought-after authority on Jewish law and a spiritual leader of a historic congregation in Paris—all while raising six children with his wife, Echka.

Quite appropriately, his namesake—the Beth Hillel Campus—is multifunctional: incorporating an early-childhood center, synagogue, library, boys’ high school and conference center.

The fourth of a string of campuses all over Paris that house the Sinai Schools Pevzner founded (Cité de L’Education Sinai), the new building is in Levallois, just a few meters over the municipal line from Sinai’s Ki Tov Campus, which houses an elementary school and girls’ high school in an up-and-coming area of Paris. The building opened with great pomp and circumstance back in March.

Even as Jewish people trickle out of France in the light of ongoing anti-Semitic agitation, the schools continue to grow. Ki Tov and Beth Hillel are strategically located in—and in the case of Beth Hillel, just outside of—Paris’ 17th district, northwest of the city center and far away from the violence that has been driving families from the traditionally Jewish 11th district in the eastern part of the capital.

The late Rabbi Hillel Pevzner, for whom the schools are named.
The late Rabbi Hillel Pevzner, for whom the schools are named.

Moreover, the intense anti-Jewish attacks and protest that occurred this summer during the course of Israel’s war with Hamas in Gaza appear to have abated, with the conflict ended and the start of the fall academic season now underway.

Today, some 2,600 students are enrolled in the Sinai institutions—a far cry from the 20 children that the rabbi managed to round up when he first opened the school in 1965.

“There was a previous school that had been opened to teach children of Holocaust survivors the French language,” recalls the rabbi’s son, Rabbi Yoseph Y. Pevzner, who succeeded his late father at the helm of Sinai. “By 1965, that school was ready to close down. The Rebbe [Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory] encouraged my father to lead the organization and breathe new life into it, telling him that Paris would soon be filled with an influx of Jewish immigrants and no one would be ready for them.”

Growth in the Late 1960s

Sure enough, following Israel’s stunning victory in the 1967 Six-Day War, Arab governments throughout the Middle East and North Africa either expelled their Jewish populations or curtailed their freedoms. Within months, Paris was flooded with tens of thousands of North African Jews.

The revitalized school—renamed “Sinai” in honor of Israel’s victory in the Sinai Desert—grew and grew, outgrowing one campus after another.

Today, some 2,600 students are enrolled in the Sinai institutions—a far cry from the 20 children that the senior Rabbi Pevzner managed to round up when he first opened the school in 1965. (Benams Photo)
Today, some 2,600 students are enrolled in the Sinai institutions—a far cry from the 20 children that the senior Rabbi Pevzner managed to round up when he first opened the school in 1965. (Benams Photo)

In 1984, it moved to a large building of its own. That was replaced by a gigantic campus in 1991, built with the Rebbe’s active encouragement and personal gift of $100 to anyone who donated toward the building campaign. By 1996, the new building was too small, and another center, named Heichal Menachem in tribute to the Rebbe, was built. As enrollment continued to grow, a third location, Ki Tov, was added in 2001.

Ki Tov’s activities have now spilled over into the Beth Hillel campus down the road, bringing the total number of campuses to four.

Legacy Lives On

While Pevzner was building an empire of schools—the largest string of Jewish educational institutes in Paris—the rabbi juggled many other responsibilities.

Shortly after he emigrated from the former Soviet Union in 1946, the young rabbi joined the staff of the Chabad yeshivah in Brunoy, a suburb outside of Paris. In 1956, following the departure of Rabbi Zalman S. Dworkin, who later became dean of the worldwide Lubavitch Rabbinic Council based in New York, the Rebbe appointed Pevzner to become the rabbi of the Lubavitch community of France. In 1962, he was appointed rabbi of the historic synagogue at 17 Rue des Rosiers, where the Rebbe himself used to pray during the years he studied in France.

Rabbi Shlomo Amar, former Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel, at the opening ceremony (Benams Photo)
Rabbi Shlomo Amar, former Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel, at the opening ceremony (Benams Photo)

As a rabbinic leader widely recognized for his knowledge of Jewish law, Pevzner was at the forefront of organizing kosher supervision in France, as well as the construction of mikvahs, ritual baths that form the mainstay of Jewish family life. After the fall of the Iron Curtain, he took special delight in building mikvahs in the former Soviet Union, where he risked his own life to maintain Torah observance as a child and young adult.

In 1995, the rabbi was decorated as knight of the Legion of Honor by President Jacques Chirac in recognition and appreciation of the services he rendered to the French Republic. The rabbi passed away in 2008 at the age of 85.

Yet his legacy lives on through the thousands who have passed through Sinai’s welcoming doors. These students come from all segments of Franco-Jewish society, says Shannon Mattouk, who matriculated this June and is now studying biology at Yeshiva University with plans for medical school. “At Sinai, you have a very broad range of students, ranging from fully religious to children from non-observant homes, and everyone feels good about being there.

“I got a lot of values at Sinai—both Jewish values, as well as life lessons,” continues Mattouk. “It was really a great preparation for life. The students are so close to the teachers, the advisors and even the headmaster; it really felt like family.”

And it’s a family Rabbi Hillel Pevzner would be proud of.

Rabbi Yoseph Y. Pevzner, who succeeded his father at the helm of the Sinai Schools, addressed the audience at the opening ceremony for the newest campus. (Benams Photo)
Rabbi Yoseph Y. Pevzner, who succeeded his father at the helm of the Sinai Schools, addressed the audience at the opening ceremony for the newest campus. (Benams Photo)
Young girls learn to recite their prayers as part of their comprehensive education. (Benams Photo)
Young girls learn to recite their prayers as part of their comprehensive education. (Benams Photo)
The schools teach Jewish values and life lessons, and the atmosphere “felt like family,” according to students. (Benams Photo)
The schools teach Jewish values and life lessons, and the atmosphere “felt like family,” according to students. (Benams Photo)
(Benams Photo)
(Benams Photo)
The exterior of the newest campus, the fourth of a string of Beth Hillel schools across Paris.
The exterior of the newest campus, the fourth of a string of Beth Hillel schools across Paris.