VILLEPINTE, France — Rabbi David Altabe looks older than his 27 years when he talks about the future of the Jewish community in this working-class suburb of Paris.
Rabbi Altabe leans his elbows on a table set for the Sabbath and sinks his furrowed brow in his palms.
“We do what we can, but it’s hard,” he says. “I don’t know why I stay. I ask myself that question all the time.”
Over a period of just three years, roughly half the Jewish families in Villepinte have left. Some have gone to other suburbs or Paris neighbourhoods considered safer for Jews; a few have left the country.
Of 300 families three years ago, only 150 remain today, community president Charly Hannoun estimates.
The reason, he says, is anti-Semitism.
Now Villepinte’s 40-year-old synagogue, which was torched in 1991 and 2001, is at risk of closing because there are barely enough regulars for a minyan. Jewish community leaders are wondering if Jews have a future here.
“It’s a whole history that’s being erased,” says Hannoun, who worked with contractors and friends to build the town’s synagogue. “It’s the end of the synagogue, and I say that with rage in my heart.”
Villepinte is one stark example of what is happening to many Jewish communities in the immigrant-heavy suburbs of the Seine-Saint-Denis region, north of Paris.
Scarred by the surge in anti-Semitism that swept through France between 2000 and 2005, roughly two-thirds of the mostly Sephardi Jews who once lived in these close-knit communities have left town.
Sammy Ghozlan, the president of the Seine-Saint-Denis Council of Jewish Communities, says more than 16,000 Jews have moved out of the suburbs since 2001. Left behind are synagogues weighing whether to close and mostly poor, elderly and religious Jewish families.
Experts say the Jewish flight from the suburbs is changing the demographics of France’s Jewish community and increasing the ghettoization of Jews in the country.
All of France is experiencing the problem, says University of Paris sociologist Shmuel Trigano, the author of The Future of the Jews in France.
“It is a general shift, not a passing crisis,” Trigano says. “The Jewish community is becoming a ghetto. It is no longer a community of choice but a community of necessity. In a democracy that shouldn’t happen.”
Though increased security has helped reduce anti-Semitic crime in France, bringing the level of anti-Jewish incidents in poorer suburbs down to the levels in Paris, the change has come too late for many suburban Jews fed up with worrying about what might happen.
Rabbi Altabe says he recently had a glass bottle thrown at him from a passing car while walking with his three-year-old child.
“If you hit us over the head enough times, we’ll protect ourselves,” says Marc Djebali, the president of the Sarcelles Jewish community, north of Paris.
Djebali says the Sarcelles community of 10,000 Jews lost about one-fifth of its population over the last decade.
“We don’t attack,” he says. “The Jews just take their bags and they go.”
Jews from the northern suburbs who are wealthy enough to live in Paris are moving to eastern Paris and its suburbs, where anti-Semitism is minimal and Jewish schools are available.
“By the next generation, there will be practically no more Jews in the northern Paris periphery,” says Maurice Robert Fellous, the president of the Jewish community in Noisy-le-Sec, a northern Paris suburb. “In 25 years, we’ll have to sell our synagogue.”
Since 2000, nearly 40 per cent of Noisy-le-Sec’s school-aged Jewish families have pulled their children from area public schools and enrolled them in Jewish institutions, Fellous says.
He attributes the shift to the area’s general anti-Jewish environment and specific incidents students have encountered, such as being beaten up and subjected to insults and taunts. Many regularly hear the cry “dirty Jew!”
This shift to Jewish schools is apparent in many places in France, albeit to a lesser degree than in Noisy-le-Sec.
Exact numbers are hard to access because by law, public schools cannot identify or count their Jewish students. Patric Petit-Ohayon, the director of the education department at the Jewish community social welfare umbrella group, the Jewish Unified Social Funds, says Jewish school enrolment in the northern Paris suburbs increased rapidly during the 2000 to 2005 period.
In moving their children to Jewish schools or their families out of the suburbs, many Sephardi families make a direct comparison between this migration and their families’ flights from North Africa some 40 years ago.
“They chased us from Algeria and they followed us here,” Robert Sebbane, 81, says of the North African Muslims responsible for much of France’s anti-Jewish crime.
In 2000, “we were shocked because we didn’t think this would happen here,” says Sebbane, who lives in the town of Creteil.
Even in Seine-Saint-Denis, which community leaders say is a comparatively safe area, Jewish residents are subject to anti-Semitic taunts and youths regularly spit at synagogues as they walk past.
Some religious Jews in France have warned community members not to display their yarmulkes in public.
In Villepinte, Hannoun says families started departing “very rapidly” in 2004, when “the reality of the situation set in.”
“It was horrible,” he says. “You couldn’t walk out of synagogue. Families couldn’t take it.”
Despite the drop in anti-Semitic crime, which Hannoun attributes to the declining number of Jews in town, Jews have continued to leave Villepinte.
Hannoun says he is torn between the desire to recruit new Jewish families to the neighbourhood to replace those who have left and discouraging potential community members from coming to a place he fears is not good for Jews.
“Honestly, I don’t know if I want them to come,” he says, adding, however, that he encourages couples who cannot afford housing elsewhere to settle here.
Though he has the financial means to relocate, Hannoun says he will not move so long as he is needed by Jews in Villepinte.
“After us, there’ll be nothing left,” Hannoun says. “We can’t lower our hands while we still have a role to play. It’s like being the captain on a sinking ship.”
In 2002, Hannoun’s son, Olivie, 40, moved with his family to Miami from France because of anti-Semitism.
Olivie Hannoun says he misses a lot about home, but his three children have become accustomed to life in the United States.
“They can’t understand that it can be difficult to be a Jew elsewhere,” Hannoun says. “They don’t know what that is, which is exactly what I wanted.”