Paris Jewish Center Destroyed by Arson

A Jewish community center in Paris that serves kosher meals to the poor was set on fire early Sunday morning. The soup kitchen, a converted synagogue on the ground floor of a five-story residential building on the Rue Popincourt in Paris’ 11th District was partially destroyed. Anti-Semitic graffiti, Nazi symbols and references to Islam were found on the center’s walls.

The police found scrawled in red magic marker on the walls: “Without the Jews the world would be happy.”

“The fire department reacted quickly and the fire did not spread to the rest of the building — there could have been victims,” said Paris Police Chief Jean-Paul Proust.

“We know it’s criminal,” he added. “There are Nazi signs and anti-Semitic inscriptions all over the place.”

“France will act with extreme severity against these anti-Semitic arsonists,” said French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin while visiting the burned-out Jewish center.

President Jacque Chirac condemned “with force this unspeakable act” and expressed his solidarity with the personnel of the center and with the whole of the Jewish community.

Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoë announced the allocation of 300,000 Euros to fortify Parisian Jewish schools, synagogues and nursing homes in Paris with video surveillance and concrete barriers.

A previously unknown group calling itself the Groupe des Partisans de la Guerre Sainte Islamique (Group of Partisans of the Holy Islamic War) took responsibility for the destruction of the Jewish center on an Islamist Web site: “A group of young moudjahadine [fighters] set fire to the Jewish temple in Paris at 0400 hours in response to racist acts commited by Jews in France against Islam and Muslims, and also to makr the 35th anniversary of the fire that ravaged the Al Aksa Mosque in Jerusalem,” a reference to an Aug. 21, 1969, fire set by an Australian Christian man that damaged a number of religious artifacts at the religious site.

Police and anti-terrorist officers are investigating the possibility that the perpetrators might be “more local” since the center was not one of the big, symbolic Jewish institutions in Paris.

An anti-terrorist officer told Reuters, “We’re on a more national track. This is not an emblematic target for a group based in Dubai or Egypt.”

Police are waiting for expert results from inspection of the crime scene.

Housed in a former synagogue once used by Greek and Turkish Jewish immigrants, the center has largely served as a social club and soup kitchen since the 1960s.

The center was not permanently guarded and there were no security cameras near the institution, a community security official said. A police night patrol that circulates in the area had passed the building some two hours before the attack but noticed nothing suspicious, he added.

On Tuesday, Israel demanded action from the French government.

CRIF, the Council of Jewish institutions of France expressed to the French government its demand “to put a stop to and condemn those responsible for this odious crime that disfigures France.”

Claude Zaffran, the rabbi of a synagogue around the corner from the community center, said he had the “impression of watching the same movie, the same story. More than just declarations and discussions, there should be some strong action to put an end to this succession of anti-Semitic acts. Without exaggerating, I can’t help but be afraid now.”

Zaffran told The Journal he was persuaded that the police are doing their job.

“We know they are doing the maximum. It’s at the judiciary level that we have a real problem. We have the laws and they are not applied. We are disgusted. What can we do? The judges are independent and they make their decisions. We don’t know what to do anymore,” he said.

Asked what he wanted to communicate to a concerned Jewish community in the United States, he answered with a tremor in his voice, “Don’t worry. Our enemies should know that if they think they are going to see the Jew of old, crouching in a corner, they are wrong. We will not lower our head, nor will we lower our arms. We will do what’s necessary.”

Jewish Telegraphic Agency contributed to this report.

Carole Raphaelle Davis lives in Los Angeles and Nice, France. She can be
reached at

Passion of Pesach

In my junior year at UC Berkeley, I brought an Egyptian
co-resident from International House named Khalid to Purim services.

This was my gesture toward international understanding and
cultural appreciation between Muslim and Jew. What a disaster!

As my co-religionists carryied on every time they heard the
name of the dreaded Haman, Khalid leafed through the Shabbat prayerbook.

When he got to the “Mi Kamocha” blessing and the celebration
of Egyptian soldiers drowning at the bottom of the sea, he turned pale. He
turned to me and said, “After all the progress made at Camp David, how can you
still have such anti-Egyptian propaganda in your prayerbooks?”

I explained to him that the prayerbook, compiled 1,200 years
ago, was referring to ancient Egyptians during the time of Pharaoh and that
Jews are very grateful to modern Egyptians for the Camp David peace accord. For
Jews, after all, the third blessing of the “Shema” is about God’s redemption
from slavery, not ancient Egyptian cruelty.

I had never looked at the “Mi Kamocha” the way Khalid did,
and I am not sure if I completely put his mind at ease. After viewing “The
Passion of the Christ,” which felt like a white-knuckle roller-coaster ride, I
wonder if my reaction to the film mirrored Khalid’s reaction to the “Mi Kamocha.”
I wonder if our Christian neighbors are playing my role in the Khalid story:
“Those were ancient Jews, we have nothing against modern Jews.”

What Christians really think of us takes on greater
importance as we enter what they call “Holy Week”: the period that spans Palm
Sunday, Good Friday and Easter. During this time, Christians focus on Jesus’
triumphant entrance into Jerusalem, the Last Supper (the seder), the betrayal,
Jesus’ suffering, crucifixion and resurrection.

Christians are supposed to go through their own spiritual
transformation as they ponder the last days of Jesus’ life, meditate on his
ultimate sacrifice for humanity’s sins and the hopeful message of his
resurrection. The more Christians can actually experience these events, the
more spiritually meaningful is the message.

The story of Jesus’ last hours has been used by some
European Christian leaders to murder Jews, most notably by Adolf Hitler. Yet
for the modern Christian who is mostly ignorant of the relationship between the
Passion story and wholesale pogroms against Jews, the story of Jesus’ suffering
is profoundly spiritual and moving.

During the same time period as Holy Week, Jews prepare for
the equally spiritually transformative holiday of Pesach. I wonder if there are
spiritual lessons Jews can take from their Christian neighbors. For many Jews
Pesach is a perfunctory, meaningless, highly abridged reading of the haggadah,
followed by a huge meal with traditional unleavened culinary favorites of the
season. Of course the primary mitzvah of the experience is for us to see
ourselves as if we had been personally freed from slavery.

The matzah, maror, charoset and shank bone are all supposed
to transport us back to our past, to a time of peril and Divine redemption. But
I do not think any of us, even the most devout who read the entire haggadah in
Hebrew/Aramaic, really experience the “passion” that the holiday demands. We
try to make the seder cute. We try to be innovative so the kids will stay
interested. But we never really get to the sense of life and death, of the real
dread of Egyptian slavery and the miraculous Divine redemption, which all the
foods and text try to recapture for us.

What we really need to do is get Mel Gibson to make a new
movie, “The Passion of the Pesach.” Our parents had Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Ten
Commandments” and DreamWorks brought our children “The Prince of Egypt.” But
neither film is the real passion that Gibson understands in the Christian

It is hard for Jews to relate to the Jesus Passion story and
what it means for Christians. In part, Jews are used to relating to stories in
the collective, while the Jesus story happens to an individual, with
ramifications for all humanity. Jews are born with a visceral rejection of Divinely
sanctioned human sacrifice because of the binding of Isaac story told every
Rosh Hashanah. God tells Abraham not to harm the boy. Instead, a ram replaces
Isaac, and the shofar (the ram’s horn) becomes an enduring symbol of the New
Year. We are taught that God sanctioned animal sacrifices to atone for human
sin, and after the Temple was destroyed, tefillah (prayer), teshuvah
(repentance) and tzedakah (bringing justice through giving of time and money)
were the three ways to achieve Divine salvation.

Yet, for all our fear of an anti-Semitic backlash from Mel
Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” there is a wake-up call for us to
rediscover the passion of our own Passover story. As we once again face the
challenge of making our seders and Passover experiences meaningful, we would
achieve much to make “passion” the leitmotif and goal of this holy season of
transformation from slavery to freedom.

Chag Sameach. Â

Michael Beals is rabbi of B’nai Tikvah Congregation in Westchester.

What’s in a Name?

When Jews come across the biblical name for God — spelled yod-hay-vav-hay in Hebrew — custom teaches us to substitute the term Adonai ("my Lord"), for according to Jewish tradition those letters are the unpronounceable name of God. A rabbi professor of mine used to elicit nervous laughter from his students by attempting to pronounce yod-hay-vav-hay, attempting to speak the "unspeakable." His seemingly irreverent effort served a good purpose — it got us thinking about the power of names and naming.

Although that name for God appears often in the Book of Genesis, it is not discussed until the Book of Exodus — until this Torah portion, Vaera, when God says to Moses: "I appeared to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make Myself known to them by My name yod-hay-vav-hay" (Exodus 6:3).

Historians tell us that it wasn’t until the Second Temple period (around 2,000 years ago) that Jews stopped pronouncing yod-hay-vav-hay. Historians also tell us that the Masoretes, those scholars who standardized our Torah and added vowels, were the ones who added the vowels for Adonai to the letters yod-hay-vav-hay in order to remind us to substitute Adonai.

But how did God intend us to pronounce yod-hay-vav-hay? In these opening chapters of the Book of Shemot (meaning "names"), when God first introduces this name to Moses, God does not forbid pronouncing yod-hay-vav-hay, and there is no suggestion to pronounce it Adonai.

The impulse to make yod-hay-vav-hay something other than a shem (a name), particularly the impulse to turn it into a title — and as gender-specific a title as Adonai — comes neither from the text nor from God. Like so many other patriarchal and hierarchical labels for God, such as King and Father, the title Adonai comes from the worshippers rather than from the Worshipped.

In this week’s portion, Vaera, and in last week’s Parashat Shemot, as God establishes relationships with Moses, with the enslaved Israelites and with the Egyptians, we hear God use different names (yod-hay-vav-hay; eheyeh asher eheyeh, "I will be what I will be," Exodus 3:14; El Shaddai) at different times to different people. In so doing, God gives us permission to continue this tradition of describing and naming God, according to our comprehension, based on our own experience.

Jewish theologian Judith Plaskow, in "Standing Again at Sinai" ( Harper San Francisco, 1991), points out that we seekers of today are heirs of a long heritage. All the metaphors and symbols that Judaism has for God have come from "human attempts to speak of the experience of God who stands at the center of Jewish life. They emerge out of the Godwrestling of our ancestors and represent their efforts to name and comprehend the God they knew as with them on a long and various journey…. Traditional symbols for God thus … provide models of a process, which we ourselves continue in seeking images of God that will be adequate for our own time."

As we do so, let’s keep in mind the power of language, the tremendous role it plays in shaping our reality. It’s like wearing glasses: When I put on my glasses, I can see the world better, but the world hasn’t changed because I put on my glasses. What changes is the way I see the world; what changes is my relationship to the world. Similarly, calling God by different names and titles doesn’t change God, it changes the way we see God, and it deepens our relationship. Consider the palpable changes in a relationship marked by descriptions, titles, terms of endearment: "You are a sweetheart," "you are my sweetheart," "Sweetheart, I want to spend the rest of my life with you." What changes is your perception; what changes is your relationship.

However carefully you make your way along this "Appellation Trail," it’s not an easy one to traverse, for it is overgrown with beliefs and superstitions, emotions and politics. As Judaism continues to evolve, we can count on God to evolve with us. As we help keep Judaism vital, living, growing, so will God continue to keep the promise made to Moses so long ago to be always in process, always unpredictable: "I will be who I will be." If we were indeed created b’tselim Elokim, in God’s image, then let God’s own changing presentations of self in Torah be an invitation to remember that in any ongoing relationship — with God or with our children, with one another or with one’s self — we ought to welcome every opportunity to name ourselves and speak our truths.

Lisa Edwards is rabbi at Beth Chayim Chadashim — House of New Life — in Los Angeles.

Light One Candle

By rights, this should be a one-candle Chanukah.

Tradition tells us, of course, that we light two candles on the first night, three the next, and so on for eight days. In all, Jews would ordinarily light 44 candles over next week.

But after the World Trade Center attacks and the Ben Yehuda Street suicide bombings, a full-flame Chanukah seems, well, inflammatory. Who can retell the Maccabean victory against Greek bullies without considering the terrorist bullies who today threaten both America and Israel?

"The purpose of terrorists and those who send them and aid them is to expel us, to drive us to despair, to lose our vision. This will never happen," said Prime Minister Ariel Sharon this week.

Let’s show Sharon that we agree. Let us use the symbols of the holiday to rededicate ourselves for battles at home and in the Middle East. The purpose of Chanukah, and the action of lighting of the candles, is to build unity, to join together the personal and the national commitment to Jewish values. We need to let the world know that this year Chanukah is not about dreidels and gelt, but about terrorism and guilt. One candle, each night, says it all.

The sages allow for this, you know.

In the Talmud, the rabbis remark that the minimum requirement for celebrating the miracle of the oil is one candle lit each of eight nights.

No demand for a brass or glass menorah, with nine candles in the shape of a tree. No necessity for a shamash, the candle used to light the other eight.

A chanukiah for every household is nice, Rav Yitzhak says. But a candelabra for each person in that household is better, notes the Rambam, since it broadcasts to the whole world that a great miracle has happened here.

But some years, less is more, especially when we need a miracle of our own. As a community, we need to conserve our energy, to make the fire of resolution come alive.

A one-candle Chanukah is a dramatic way of declaring solidarity between America and Israel in the fight against terrorism. By placing the menorah in the window each year, we are "publicizing the miracle" of the meager amount of oil which nevertheless lasted eight days.

But a single candle each night publicizes a miracle, too. It insists that we takes the current moment seriously, recognizing that we are facing adversaries every bit as dangerous as King Antiochus Epiphanes. He forbade Sabbath worship, kashrut and circumcision, the norms of Jewish life, and placed Greek gods in the Temple, and the sacrifice of pigs.

So too do terrorists seek to end our normal existence, air travel and a peaceful walk in a shopping mall. They want to fill our streets with panic.

Lighting one candle will teach our children, dramatically, that this is a special post-Sept. 11 Chanukah. (I’m not suggesting no presents, heaven forbid.) In the taste of our celebration, we’ll put the chocolate gelt where the mouth is.

While we grieve for the silly old days when Chanukah was merely Christmas without a tree, the new seriousness is not entirely bad for adults, either. It compels us to see the miracle of the oil in the most personal terms, as a lesson in how to withstand military and social attack. Chanukah is a story of survival, and we need its lesson today. Tell the children that you, too, see Chanukah in a new, more sober light, now that a skyscraper has gone up in smoke. You might even want to sing the Peter Yarrow song, "Light One Candle," along with "Rock of Ages."

Instead of our giddily comparing our holiday with Christmas, our Chanukah this year will build on the gravitas of its own Jewish history.

Chanukah commemorates the rededication of the Temple after the defeat of the Greeks. You might want to ask your children to dedicate each candle to a separate theme. Some suggestions:

Candle No. 1 is for the innocent victims of terrorism, in New York, Washington, Jerusalem and Haifa.

Candle No. 2 is for the soldiers who put their lives on the line for the ideal of freedom.

Candle No. 3 is to refute the terrorist bullies who equate Israeli targeted assassination of Palestinian ringleaders with Palestinian suicide bombers targeting innocent civilians on a pedestrian street. May they not prevail.

Candle No. 4 is to refute the intellectual bullies in our own country who would use the current conflict to challenge Israel’s very right to exist. (See candle No. 3).

Candle No. 5 is for the days when Jews and Muslims lived together in peace.

Candle No. 6 is for victory over terrorism, in the past, present and future.

Candle No. 7 is for the leaders of the world, that they be guided by the desire for a lasting peace.

Candle No. 8 is for hatikvah, the hope of our people.

Happy Chanukah, one wick at a time.