The Jewish community of France’s northern city of Rouen is still reeling after their only synagogue was torched by an Islamist arsonist on Friday, May 17.

Rebbetzin Sterna Lubecki was up and already cooking for Shabbat when she looked out her kitchen window at around 6 a.m to see smoke emerging from the Synagogue of Rouen. She and her husband, Rabbi Shmuel (Chmouel) Lubecki, direct Chabad-Lubavitch of Rouen—the regional capital of Normandy—and live next door to the synagogue, where her husband serves as rabbi. She quickly informed her husband and called emergency services. Though she did not know it to be a terror attack at first, she felt suspicious about the scene. Something told her it was more than just a fire. She was right.

An arsonist had thrown a Molotov cocktail into the synagogue, setting the building alight. He then spent more than an hour feeding the flames; when the authorities arrived, the attacker attempted to stab a police officer before being shot dead.

The assailant, whose name has not yet been released to the public, was identified as an Algerian immigrant. At the time of the attack, the man was wanted by authorities after his application for medical treatment was rejected and, as such, set to be deported.

After the authorities cleared the scene, Rabbi Lubecki ran into the building to see what could be salvaged.

“At first, the police and firefighters wouldn’t let me in,” Rabbi Lubecki said. “An hour and a half later, they opened the doors for me and let me in. I could smell smoke everywhere, and I was covered in ash. Everything was burned except the beloved Torah, which was totally intact. That was a gift from G‑d.”

No one was harmed in the attack, although Lubecki suspects that the terrorist intended to inflict as much damage as possible. “He wanted to kill people. He thought he’d be able to target Jews during their morning prayers. It was a true miracle nobody was there.”

Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said the incident was an “antisemitic act against a place that is sacred to the Republic.” For his part, Rabbi Lubecki commends the French government for taking the attack seriously.

Some 70 rabbis from neighbouring locales rushed to the scene to assist the Lubeckis after an arson attack. - Credit: Beth Loubavitch Rouen
Some 70 rabbis from neighbouring locales rushed to the scene to assist the Lubeckis after an arson attack.
Credit: Beth Loubavitch Rouen

‘We Must Be Strong’

Since Oct. 7, as antisemitic sentiment spread globally and in France in particular, Rabbi Lubecki had a feeling that this day would soon come.

“Islamists have raised their heads in all of France,” he lamented. “The government, thankfully, is with us. They always send police to every prayer service, and that’s beautiful to see. After this incident, they said they’ll continue to help in any way they can. But the problem of antisemitism keeps growing.”

“This is a problem for all of Europe,” he continued, adding that police should have a zero-tolerance policy and arrest anybody who harrasses and intimidates Jews, as a way of sending a clear message that antagonizing Jews is not acceptable.

As for the Jewish community of Rouen, members are going back to routine, even though it will take at least six months to restore their synagogue to its former glory. Prayer services are now being held in Lubecki’s nearby Chabad center, which is generally used for CTeen, Torah classes and other Chabad programs in the city.

“I tell everybody that we can’t be afraid. We must protect ourselves and be vigilant, but we must be strong. They want us to be afraid, and they must not win. Every time we pray, it defies our enemies,” the rabbi said.

The community—home to some 200 Jewish families—seems to be fully behind the rabbi’s sentiment as members attended the following Shabbat morning services in droves.

On the Sunday morning after the attack, a delegation of 70 Chabad rabbis from Paris came to the small city two hours away to show their support.

“They came without question and uplifted our spirits. I never expected it because they’re very busy,” Lubecki said.

He acknowledged that such an emotional display of support dovetails with the Chabad spirit of treating all Jews as family.

“When something happens in our community, it’s as if it happened to one’s family,” he added.

For now, though, Lubecki is focusing on rebuilding with renovation costs estimated to be some 400,000 euros. The damage is substantial with the insides of the building charred and covered in smoke. As a result, he’s working closely with French officials to ensure surveillance of the renovated facility will be robust and include cameras equipped with artificial intelligence facial-recognition technology.

“It’s not trivial to set fire to a synagogue,” community member Yochanan Natanson told “We Jews are used to hatred, but for France, it’s worrying. The community has many questions. The first being, how long can we stay in France? My grandfather was arrested by the French police in 1942 and sent to Auschwitz, so this incident hits close to home.”

Natanson, though, said that the community is holding their collective head up high and have chosen to move on from the tragedy and acknowledge that matters could have been much worse.

“We’re currently praying at Beit Chabad, and thank G‑d, we have one. What happened is upsetting, but it doesn’t affect our sense of unity as a community or our everyday lives. On the contrary, it probably reinforced the fact that we all must stick together,” he added.

Many in the general population, too, have shown solidarity with the Jews of Rouen. “I’m visibly Jewish, and I’ll often be greeted by non-Jews with a smile or a Shabbat shalom,” Natanson said. And, most importantly, we have the law on our side. That's the difference between France in 1942 and today.”

Meanwhile, Lubecki has faith that the community will emerge from this even stronger than before.

“We’re a peaceful community and very close-knit,” he said, sharing that this week they will host the opening of their first mikveh.

“We’ve worked on this for 20 years,” he said proudly. “Police suggested we cancel the event because of the attack, but I disagreed. We have to demonstrate that we will not hide under intimidation.”