Paris, 1971. A rabbinical student stood on a busy boulevard, asking passersby if they were Jews and if they wanted to put on tefillin in the nearby synagogue.

Joseph Schoukroun, an aspiring young engineer born to a Jewish family in Algeria, was living a secular life, and did not know much about his heritage. When asked if he was Jewish, he answered in the affirmative. In response to the earnest young man’s offer to help him put on tefillin, his curiosity got the better of him, and he agreed to enter the synagogue.

There he put on tefillin for the first time, and then went on his way.

As the days passed, the question “are you Jewish” continued to play in his mind and gave him no rest. So he stopped by a bookstore and bought a few books about Judaism. As he read and absorbed the information, he began to make small changes in his life.

Time passed, and work brought Joseph to Brunoy, a suburb southeast of Paris. Upon inquiring about kosher food, he was directed to the Chabad yeshivah that had been founded there shortly after the end of World War II. He was greeted by two yeshivah students who engaged him in conversation. They soon realized that Joseph’s thirst for Torah knowledge was unquenchable.

The yeshivah regularly hosted seminars for university students to advance their Torah study, and they invited Joseph to join. He accepted their invitation and began to learn eagerly, spending eight months in the yeshivah learning Torah and living as an observant Jew. During that time he heard much about the Rebbe and wanted to visit New York and meet the Rebbe personally.

And so, Joseph booked an audience with the Rebbe. Following the established custom, Joseph composed a lengthy letter describing his background, the crossroads he was at and the many other questions he had, some pertaining to chassidic customs.

During the audience, Joseph read out his questions, and the Rebbe replied to each of them. Then Joseph said, “I have heard lots about you over the past eight months, and in my estimation, the Parisians have an exaggerated love for you.”

The Rebbe smiled and answered: “What can I do? I myself have an exaggerated love for every single Jew!”

Joseph, now known as Yosef, returned to France and continued his studies. He eventually married and built a beautiful Jewish family, and became involved in sharing the Rebbe's love and wisdom with many Parisian Jews.

Yosef Schoukroun with the Rebbe in the winter of 1992 (JEM The Living Archive).
Yosef Schoukroun with the Rebbe in the winter of 1992 (JEM The Living Archive).

(Adapted from Sichat Hashavuah 805 (June 6, 2002) and the personal diary of Yosef Schoukron - 1938-2012.)