Charles Simon - Fall 2016
Larry Ritter and family delivering a Torah to Beth Tikvah, Toulouse
I write this for interested readers, leaders, and my potential successor because it demonstrates one of the FJMC leadership’s great strengths and at the same time tells the story of the development of Massorti France (Massorti in France has two “s” s). On a personal note, the work I have done as a volunteer helping to develop communities in Europe and Latin America has been one the most rewarding aspects of my life. It would never have occurred if not for the openness and commitment of generations of FJMC leaders to building our global Movement.
If it weren’t for the involvement of FJMC leadership in their synagogues, more than a dozen Torah scrolls would not have been gifted to developing congregations on permanent loan, and if it weren’t for FJMC leadership, Masorti congregations in France, Argentina, Peru, Panama, Brazil, England and Peru, would not have been visited by Conservative/Masorti North American organizations, or JTS rabbinical students. Finally, it was because of FJMC leadership’s commitment to an international Movement that the prayer book Sim Shalom as well as a Machzor were translated and adapted into French, and additional needed materials, many of which were developed by the FJMC for our constituents, were translated into French and Spanish.
While all of these activities were first sanctioned by Masorti Olami, the international umbrella organization for the Conservative/Masorti Movement, they would not have seen fruition if it were not for the dedicated volunteers of the FJMC.
Culture is the key to success
As the Executive Director of the FJMC, I sat on the board of the World Council of Synagogues, now called Masorti Olami. For a variety of reasons, I ended up becoming the point person for work with what was then our only congregation in France, Adat Shalom in Paris
My success was directly related to asking open ended questions and my willingness to listen. Our first joint project was a Machzor for the High Holidays that we published in soft cover. This established my credibility and was followed by Elliot Dorph’s pastoral letter on sexuality. Next came a series of pamphlets, which led up to the creation and adaptation of a Shabbat and daily siddur in French.
One of my tasks was to serve as a liaison for Adat Shalom with the Rabbinical Assembly. I needed to obtain permission for the translations and lobby on the congregation’s behalf or on behalf of the translations behalf. This came to a head when the French community requested an alteration in the language of the siddur. Prior to returning the Torah to the ark, they wanted to include a prayer for the coming of the Messiah. My counterpart in the Rabbinical Assembly and ultimately the appropriate chairs of various rabbinical assembly committees resisted this change because they had already gone to great lengths to remove this prayer from the siddur.
The American rabbis didn’t understand French culture. They didn’t understand that Europeans, unlike North Americans, were still living in the shadow of the Holocaust. It took some time to convince them otherwise but eventually, we prevailed. This was one of the great lessons I learned and it has been of tremendous help when I work with Men’s Clubs, synagogues and most recently the Brotherhoods of the Reform Movement. Every culture is unique and must be taken into account when attempting to introduce anything new.
If you build it, they will come
The success of Adat Shalom, a place where men and women could sit together and pray in a traditional manner, coupled with the radio broadcasts of its rabbi, brought people to the community. I remember meeting men and women who travelled hundreds of miles once a month just to attend Shabbat services at Adat Shalom. I met people who discovered their Jewish origins which their parents had hidden from them and found meaning and value at Adat Shalom. The success of Adat Shalom stimulated a women’s group in Nice to create a Maayane Or. Maayane Or became our movement’s second congregation in France.
One year, while on vacation with my family in the south of France, I met a group of men and women who had been holding Friday evening services in a hotel for about six months. Since I was an American and a rabbi, they didn’t hesitate to request funds for space rental for Shabbat morning. The Jewish community in France has a Chief Rabbi and is governed in each city or province by a group called the “consistoire”. These organizations provide funds/salaries for clergy and maintain community institutions like cemeteries and mikvaot. The Massorti Movement in France, is not a recipient of these funds and is forced, as it is in the United Kingdom, to charge for synagogue membership.
I countered their request by suggesting they shouldn’t be renting space in a hotel, they should be renting a storefront or an apartment so they could cook and have meetings, services, and classes. I asked if I sent them a French speaking rabbinical student on an occasional basis would they provide food and lodging. They said, “Of course”. I asked if they would accept a woman rabbinical student. They respond, “Of course.” We jointly agreed that I would spend three weeks that summer working with them, and they would provide me with language instruction every morning and home hospitality. I returned to New York and began searching for rabbinical students.
I returned three months later to study French and go storefront hunting with a number of people. They organized classes for me to teach every evening and we jointly held our first two Shabbat morning services. Four years later they engaged their first fulltime rabbi. Six years after that, they dedicated their building. Last year they celebrated their twentieth anniversary. After several years their initial rabbi moved to Paris and started a second congregation which continues to grow year by year. Congregational development takes years. But it’s worth it.
One Shabbat in the storefront, a family from Aix En Provence attended a bat mitzvah in our congregation in Nice. In this instance, the father was Jewish and the mother was born French Catholic. They had two very young children. At that time, the Jewish community in Aix was led by a North African Orthodox Rabbi and the community prayed in a traditional Sephardic manner. This family was not welcomed nor did they feel comfortable in that environment.
At the bat mitzvah, the non-Jewish wife, turned to her husband and said, “If there was a synagogue like this in our community, I would join it.” That was the beginning of the Masorti community in Aix. Several years later, a similar situation occurred in Marseilles. Our rabbi in Nice decided, for personal reasons, to move to Paris. A year later our second congregation, Dor Vador opened in Paris. This was followed a few years later in a Parisian suburb by Communaute Saint Germaine en Laye opened its doors. This past summer a Masorti community created itself in Toulouse.
The word that FJMC was providing Torahs to developing congregations in Europe began to spread. Rabbis or volunteers in the U.S. would often call and explain that their synagogue had merged and they would be interested in donating a Torah to a growing Masorti congregation available.
In 2015 FJMC leaders sponsored a mission to the south of France and visited these congregations. The trip was memorable both for the Americans who attended and the French who welcomed them. To this day I continue to receive positive feedback and requests for a return visit. All credit goes to FJMC leadership. The trip wasn’t my idea and I didn’t lead it. It was part of my leaders’ greater mission. FJMC created the opportunity for North American Jews to meet and visit places they never would have visited and in doing so, they made a difference.
Again, this is one of the lessons, I have learned and I have taught. Volunteerism must be rewarding and must be enjoyable. The role of the leader, lay and professional is to create a shared vision. The rest is a piece of cake.
The skills which FJMC leaders learn and teach reflect both long- and short-term planning coupled with specific messaging and the delivering of services. These skills are the foundation for successful synagogues and our Movement. FJMC is the breeding ground for their success.
One final note: Too often I hear people making disparaging remarks about France and, by inference, about French Jewry. France has the largest Jewish population in Europe and the people who create our congregations are courageous pioneers. They have been touched by our Movement’s message and realize it is a way to enrich their lives and the lives of their children. They have to struggle constantly with the larger more normative community and often are ridiculed and belittled for choosing a different path. While we in North America have large buildings populated with rabbis, cantors and educators, they are building communities with much less and they are succeeding. They have much to teach us. At a time when the importance of our Movement’s mission needs to be rekindled. Perhaps one of the lessons I have learned is that when we work together as a global movement we can turn passive Jews into active ones and truly make a difference.