Published on May 10th in The Jerusalem Post
On Monday, France will start to gradually release the lockdown imposed to contain the coronavirus outbreak that has caused over 26,000 confirmed deaths and infected some 140,000 people.
As Robert Ejnes, executive director of the Conseil Représentatif des Institutions Juives de France (CRIF), explained to The Jerusalem Post, Jewish institutions are also working to prepare the exit strategy for synagogues, schools and all the facilities that represent the pillar of the Jewish life in the country, amid worries related to a documented rise in antisemitism connected to the emergency and the expected economic crisis.
“After the beginning of the pandemic, we created a crisis management unit to respond to the needs of the community, including offering psychological support and assisting the sick and the bereaved families,” Ejnes explained.
Together with the CRIF, the task force includes representatives of institutions such as the Unified Jewish Social Fund (FSJU), the Children Aid Society (OSE), the Casip-Cojasor Foundation for social action and the Israelite Central Consistory of France.
About 500,000 Jews live in France in a population of 67 million people. Since no data based on religious affiliation is collected, it is difficult to know how many Jews have been infected or have succumbed to the coronavirus. Estimations published by the Israeli paper Makor Rishon varied between several hundreds to 2,000.
Ejnes pointed out that unfortunately, the CRIF special team working on monitoring antisemitism in France has been registering an increase of antisemitic discourse on the internet.
“We see a lot of conspiracy theories against Jews, especially on social media,” he told the Post.
At the end of April, the CRIF addressed a letter to the head of Zoom France denouncing episodes of "zoombombing."
The task force is now working on developing protocols under the government guidelines for synagogues and schools to reopen. The CRIF CEO said he does not believe that they will be able to resume activities before the end of May and only in a limited framework.
“Even if in-person events cannot take place, most synagogues and institutions are more active than ever, holding a lot of online activities,” he pointed out.
“What we are very worried about is the economic crisis that is going to follow the health crisis. We expect that a lot more people are going to need the help of Jewish institutions. For this reason, Jewish organizations are working on increasing their fundraising,” he explained.
If Jewish institutions are gearing up for difficult times, Faustine Sigal, a 26-year-old Parisian Jew who works as international director of Jewish Education at Jewish nonprofit Moishe House, said that she and her friends are not too worried about losing jobs at the moment.
“The laws protecting workers in France are very strong. Since the beginning of the crisis, the government assured that nobody would lose their job because of the virus. So far, I only know one person who was working as a freelancer and whose contract that expired was not renewed,” she told the Post.
Sigal explained that after the outbreak she is seeing a lot of young people volunteering, starting from the residents of the three Moishe Houses in Paris. The nonprofit subsidizes part of the rent of apartments whose residents – generally three to five – commit to organize events for the community and open their doors. Since the beginning of the coronavirus emergency, all the activities have switched to online.
Sigal also shared some criticism towards the Jewish institutions in the country.
“I know that there are people who have continued to gather to pray in a quorum during the lockdown even if it is prohibited and I haven’t seen any reaction from the Consistory or other institutions,” she said. “Moreover, in many communities around the world I heard very interesting conversations about issues such as using Zoom in order to reunite families for the Passover Seder. My feeling is that in France the question was just ignored.”
Sigal did have a Seder on Zoom to connect with her parents. Her father was infected with the virus and hospitalized right before Passover. He has since recovered.
“I think for a lot of young people this was the first time that they had to figure out how to prepare and run a Seder by themselves and not just rely on their families. For many it was a learning experience,” she pointed out.
Another area where the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting the French Jewish community is the ability to travel to Israel where many have family.
“My last living grandparent was living in Israel and passed away right at the beginning of the crisis. We were not able to go for the burial and the mourning period, which was pretty traumatic,” Sigal shared.
“I have six children in Israel, not being able to see them is not easy,” said Ejnes.
As it is happening all over the world, also ceremonies such as weddings and bar/bat mitzvahs had to be postponed.
“I was invited to nine weddings this summer, all of them have been canceled for the time being,” Sigal told the Post.
“We have been assisting to many life-cycle events streamed on Zoom, we are hoping that by the end of the month we will be able to hold small minimal ceremonies in person again,” highlighted Ejnes.
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