Twenty -five participants from the United States, led by FJMC President Myles Simpson and Rabbi Carl Wolkin of Congregation Beth Shalom, Northbrook, Illinois, had seven adventure-packed days last March on the FJMC/Masorti Olami Mission to Provence, France. The primary objectives of the mission were to build relationships with the Masorti congregations in the region, to learn about Jewish life in these communities and to offer support.
Shabbat was spent in Nice with the flourishing Maayane Or Congregation where Kabbalat Shabbat and Shabbat morning services, led by Rabbi David Touboul, were enhanced by the congregation’s beautiful singing. Synagogue President Franck Medioni hosted meals at the synagogue where we met Maayane Or’s congregants, and reconnected with Joanna Kubar, president of Masorti Europe, who had attended our past two international conventions. We enjoyed delicious Provencal Jewish dishes and wonderful Kosher French wines.
We also visited Congregation Or Chalom, a newer Masorti congregation, in Aix-en-Provence. A small congregation led by President Robert Pariente, it holds services twice a month with the assistance of a professor from a local university whose expertise is Jewish studies and liturgy. After visiting its sanctuary and learning about Jewish life in Aix-en-Provence, we dined with the synagogue members. FJMC leaders had a working lunch with the synagogue leadership to discuss how FJMC can assist in growing this community. The congregation, which has 12 students in its school, is reaching out to local non-Orthodox Jews with community dinners and holiday celebrations.
These two Masorti communities face similar issues. There is broad anti-Semitism, both from the native French population and from the more radical portions of the Moslem population. French culture and France’s socialist government do not promote volunteerism, so the lay leadership is limited. Clergy support is also an issue, especially at Or Chalom. Nonetheless, both congregations are growing and are satisfying a real need for non-Orthodox spiritual communities. They appreciated that we care about their success. We promised to stay in touch and to explore ways to support these communities.
We also visited several sights of historic Jewish interest. The synagogues in Cavaillon and Carpentras were built in the 14th century in the towns’ cramped Quartiers Juifs. When Jews returned to the area after the French revolution, they built elegant sanctuaries on the older buildings’ foundations. The synagogue in Carpentras is still used for worship today. The lower level, containing the original sanctuary, matzah bakery, and the mikveh, has been restored.
On a darker note, the group also visited Camp des Milles. During the Shoah, this former tile factory near Aix-en-Provence was used by the Vichy government as a transit point to the death camps. The factory, now a museum, preserves the internment areas, conducts studies about genocide, and promotes tolerance.
Jewish life and heritage were only part of the tour. The itinerary included visits to art museums, historic walled villages, including St. Paul de Vence, where Chagall worked and is buried, and Monaco.
While everyone enjoyed the fascinating, fun and educational aspects of our sight-seeing, we all came away feeling very enriched by the relationships that we built with our new friends in the Masorti communities, and are excited about continuing these relationships in the future.