The Campaign to Rescue The French Children by Satmar-Zalman

Satmar-Zalmanites are at present engaged in a campaign to “rescue” French children from the Zionist snare that allegedly seeks to lead them into apostasy (shemad). It is the latest spiritual rescue initiative in a string of many spearheaded by Satmar over the past half century.

Such rescue campaigns are premised on the belief that Jewish immigrants to Israel become less observant of religion and tradition as they become absorbed in Israeli society. The Satmars and other haredi sects believe that this is due to a deliberate malicious campaign by the the Israeli government to eradicate religion from its midst. But critics and psychological experts attribute the attenuation of religious observance to a change in the immigrants’ ethnic identity self-concept following their resettlement in a country where everyone identifies as Jewish: whereas observance of at least some religious practices are necessary in the Diaspora in order to feel Jewish, in Israel Jewish identity manifests itself through political and civic attitudes. With the possibility of asserting a Jewish identity through speaking Hebrew, eating falafel and serving in the military, going to the synagogue is no longer critical for Jewish identity.

At any rate, there is a very strong precedent for the Satmar activism in this field. It started with the “yaldei teiman” (Yemenite Jews) who emigrated to Israel soon after its 1948 establishment. Tales abounded of peios and beards being cut and children being snatched from their naive observant parents to be raised by secular Jews. R. Joel Teitelbaum raised the alarm at what was happening and founded religious educational institutions for the Yemenites in Israel and America.

In later years Satmar opened Rav Tuv (much good) and Yad Leahim (a hand to brothers) to help Iranians and Russians, respectively, resist their assimilation into irreligious Israeli society, for the most part through diverting them to the U.S. instead of Israel. Although the rescue in these subsequent immigration waves was not targeted towards children any more than adults, the phrase “children of….” stuck; hence, the name of the present rescue effort: yaldei tzorfas (French children).

Background to the Present Campaign

Muslim immigration to Europe in general and France in particular surged over the past two decades until France became home to the largest Muslim population in Europe, with an estimated 5-6 million Muslims out of a total population of 66 million.

With the French Jewish population of 465,000 being likewise the largest of any European country –indeed being the third largest (after Israel and the U.S.) in the world– the eruption of rancor between the Jewish and Muslim communities was inevitable. A spate of “anti-semitic” (not a technically correct term since Arab Muslims are also semitic) violence and vandalism followed, exacerbated by the Second Intifada.

Israel’s Ministry of Aliyah and Integration naturally stepped in to welcome French Jewish immigrants in accordance with the country’s Law of Return which promises a safe haven in Israel to any and all Diaspora Jews who seek it. Moreover, French immigration was especially coveted since its Jewish population had a high proportion of professionals, including doctors, dentists and the like (unlike many of the previous immigration waves that originated in Arab countries). Israel went to great lengths to encourage and accommodate its French immigrants, including the construction of entire neighborhoods replete with new housing, the offering of bilingual education, and the recent validation of French-issued medical degrees despite their being based on a different curriculum from that which is taught in Israel’s medical schools.

Israel’s immigrants who receive an education in Israel do so under the same terms offered to longstanding citizens: they choose between a “state-religious” (mamlakhti dati) education or a mere “state” (i.e. non-religious) education. It is noteworthy that the “state” education still includes a rigorous tanakh course in its curriculum as well as a civics course that is reverent of tradition and instills ethnic-political pride in its pupils. State-Religious schools go a step further by including direct instruction in “halakha” in the spirit of the Mizrahi-Zionist movement.

The Sephardi community in France is traditional, as they all are, and is inclined to keep the bulk of core orthodox practices when not too difficult. Moreover, Chabad is very active among them in France, having established institutions of learning, synagogues and mikvaos, and generally promoting Jewish pride and practice. Upon arriving in Israel, however, many of the sephardi immigrants assumed a new sort of Jewish identity –the “Israeli” one– that obviates Judaic studies and traditional practice as a sine qua non to a Jewish identity. Even in mamlakhti-dati schools, it seemed, Orthodoxy appeared to attenuate.

Kalever Rebbe Identifies the problem and suggests a solution.

Moshe Taub, the Kalever Rebbe from Hews Street in Williamsburg, had for many years engaged in kiruv (outreach) toward the sephardi sector. Independently wealthy from well-timed real estate investment, he devoted much of his time and resources to visit sephardi communities wherever they were, and lecture, advise, and inspire them on Judaism. He is known among them as a hakham (wise man) and placards could be seen plastered in neighborhoods where he stayed for shabbos announcing to the community that a “righteous man is coming to town”. In Williamsburg he is a petty rebbe with but a small schtiebel and few followers, but his kruv endeavor toward sephardim has been highly successful and has made him a renowned and revered personage among many sephardim. He is now retired and mostly home-ridden due to an infliction of ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis). He is the one who introduced to Zalman Leib Teitelbaum, Satmar Rebbe of Williamsburg, the problem presented by the secularization trend of sephardic immigrants after arriving in Israel.

The solution they came up with was costly, yet simple and straightforward with ample precedence: Independent Education (hinukh atzmai). An educational system that was independent of the Israeli government and thus free to adopt a haredi curriculum is a long-standing institution in Israel. The Israeli government initially agreed to fund 40% (later increased to 55%) of the budget, with haredi parents and donors footing the remainder of the bill, on the condition that certain practices be observed, e.g. the teaching of Hebrew and some secular courses, in addition t0 the characteristic haredi curriculum of humash, rashi, talmud, at al.

Independent Education had been a core bone of contention between Joel Teitelbaum and his Satmar-aligned sector on the one hand and R. Aaron Kotler and the Agudas Israel-aligned sector on the other. R. Teitelbaum had prohibited the acceptance of financial aid from the Zionist government to support education and was irked by other Rabbis’ dispensation on the matter. He, nevertheless, recognized that it was far superior to the alternatives of “state” and “state-religious” institutions. While he envisaged a completely sovereign system as the ideal, he acknowledged that many people who sought an Orthodox education could not afford the high costs and tuition associated with the foregoing of government funding and would thus be lured into the state systems instead if hinukh atzmai were not available to them (in which at least a substantial portion of the budget is government-funded). R. Yoelish therefore quietly wrote out checks to support Independent Education even as he engaged permissive haredi Rabbis in polemic against it and even as he publicly decried it.

About two years ago, therefore, R. Zalman Leib Teitelbaum was persuaded by the Kalever Rebbe to spearhead a major campaign to raise funds for Independent Education so that newly arriving sephardi families would send their children to it instead of the tuition-free state schools.

Fundraising for Yaldei Tzorfas

Whereas previous Satmar fundraising campaigns to “rescue” children from the evil grips of the Zionists had been limited to Satmar’s own community, recent developments among Orthodox Jews had shown that such a constraint was no longer necessary and hence was undesirable. Chai Lifeline, an organization that supports ill children, is the trendsetter in this regard: it started within the haredi sector but was soon expanded to the MO (Modern Orthodox) sector once it was discovered that MO’s wealthy donors were eager to partake of haredi-led fundraising events in exchange for the honor and recognition they received from a hasidic sector that had thitherto thumbed their nose at them having labeled them pejoratively as “modern”.

Passage from the author’s book, tentatively titled “Hasidopedia”, scheduled to be released in 6-8 months.

Accordingly, previous child rescue campaigns and other anti-Zionist campaigns were markedly not supported by any modern Orthodox elements, and often not even by other haredi sects and the Lithuanian community. The current campaign, by contrast, has succeeded in scope and effect in an unprecedented and unanticipated way. Campaign leaders have adopted a two-faceted approach: Moral support for it is elicited from Satmar hasidim who dig its prima facie anti-Zionist bent of rescuing children spiritually from a raging and evil force that seeks to deliberately lead them astray (shemad); whereas to the affluent Lithuanian and Modern Orthodox element a decidedly different pitch is intoned in order to coax contributions –support for a Torah education.

Indeed, lavish fundraising parties have been organized in prestigious 5-star hotels, as befits the sensibilities of the MO sector. Philanthropists there are willing to pledge extravagant contributions for the honor, prestige, and good feelings engendered by the fundraising dinner and the knowledge that one’s funds are being used to channel innocent children toward a Torah life in lieu of a secular one.

Aaron Protests

As with many other contentious matters (e.g. eiruv and conscription of yeshiva boys), once one of the Satmar Rebbe brothers assumes a position on an issue, the other feels compelled to oppose it. The Independent Education campaign for “French children” (yaldei tzorfas) is no different. Aaronites cried foul at the impudence that a Teitelbaum had to champion the detested hinukh atzamai that the old Rebbe, Joel Teitelbaum, had expended so much of his energies in opposing. The check that the old rabbi once wrote for hinukh atzamai, they contended, was a surreptitious act. The Rebbe would not have done it publicly, let alone embarked on a campaign to fundraise for it.

The Pivot

And so Zalman recently decided to pivot. Instead of supporting the continued French immigration to Israel where they would be routed toward hinukh atzmai, he is now advising French jewry to stay put. The exorbitant sums of money that have been raised in the campaign are now ostensibly being directed toward the establishment and maintenance of haredi educational institutions in France.

Criticism

For all the effort and glamor associated with this campaign and the unusually large sum of seven million dollars that it has putatively raised, it doesn’t do anything new, critics argue. Chabad has had a presence in France for decades. Its missionaries have lived there and operated there for many years for God’s sake without any fanfare and despite financial straits. All French sephardic Jews who seek to take their observance level up a notch know to turn to chabad for advice and help. With the chabad institutions so well-established and so immensely effective, even on shoestring budgets, why not simply augment the existing institutions through a fresh infusion of funds so that they could do an even better job at what they have proven to be so good at.

But then again, the Messianic bent that the Chabad mission in France demonstrates is alienating to mainstream haredim and other hasidic sects. Perhaps that is why a new set of institutions are needed to offer French sephardim a taste of non-messianic ashkenazi-style haredi Judaism.

 

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3 Responses to The Campaign to Rescue The French Children by Satmar-Zalman

  1. YBB says:

    You needed scandal to make it juicy so you write that chabad does this already for years. Kaliver Rebbe is also active for years there. I don’t see why this is labled any legitimate criticism that somebody does therefore cannot an other person do as well?

  2. AEL says:

    R’ Zalmen Leib did not “pivot” from supporting Chinuch Atzmoi to encouraging French Jews to stay in France. The Satmar rebbe and his forebears, and many generous Satmar Chasidim, have supported Charedi Chinuch in France for decades and encouraged the French Jews to stay. The Keren Yaldei Tzorfas always had two missions – to support Jews staying in France and to support Charedi Chinuch for French Jews in Eretz Yisroel. It’s not a contradiction to support both. Certain French Jews will leave France regardless of what the Satmar rebbe says. The point is to provide the proper schools for them in E”Y. At the same time, the goal is to support Charedi Mosdos in France so they can continue to provide good Chinuch for those Jews who remain. Both are very important causes.
    Although very few French Jews, even among the Charedim, subscribe to the “Satmar Shita,” nevertheless today there is broad recognition and Hakaras Hatov to the Satmar rebbe for recognizing the difficult situation in France and for coming to the aid of his French Jewish brethren. While French Jews deal with a difficult security situation, bad economic times, and the departure of many members of the community to E”Y, England, Canada, and USA, only the Satmar rebbe out of all the Jewish leaders in the world is paying attention and helping. Ashreichem Chasidei R’ Zalmen Leib! You have a rebbe with a big heart who cares about Jews worldwide and encourages philanthropists to help make a tremendous Kiddush Hashem.

    • YBB says:

      Yes, i remember since as a kid, that the late Rabbi Gershoin Libman used to be a household name in Satmar. The Satmar connection to French Jewry is nothing new now. But like everything now in Satmar the Zalmenite fraction reawakens the old ways of Reb Yolish that was earsed by the Beirach Moishe like the war against Anti-Giuss protest now that Aron and his followers mocks it and the zalmen fraction filled up barcleys center all alone.

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