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'Anti-Semitic insults are a daily part of life.' Swastika on Jewish graves in France (archives)
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French rabbi confronts anti-Semitism
Rabbi Davide Altabe hopes that by remaining in northern Paris suburb of Villepinte, he'll encourage dwindling Jewish population to do so as well
VIDEO – It's a tough job being a rabbi, especially for those who work in France's suburbs.

 

Fostering pride amongst congregants isn't always easy when most French Jews prefer to hide their Jewish identity out of fears of arousing anti-Semitism.

 

Video courtesy of jn1.tv

 

Many have left, but he remains. Rabbi Davide Altabe has run the Villepinte synagogue for 10 years. The building in a working-class suburb of northern Paris has been torched twice.

 

Though security has increased, anti-Semitism hasn't gone down.

 

"Insults are an everyday part of life, and sometimes can degenerate into an attack," Rabbi Altabe says. "I've lost count of the number of times I've heard 'dirty Jew,' 'Zionist,' 'Free Palestine,' 'Death to the Jews'...

 

"Once I was with my daughter, who was five at the time. We were walking in the street and were hit with a beer bottle by someone calling, 'Dirty Jewish bastard.' How did they know I was Jewish? By my skullcap."

 

Out of the 30 men in his congregation, Rabbi Altabe is one of the few who still wears his skullcap beyond the synagogue's walls. The other men hide theirs under baseball caps to avoid attracting unwanted attention.

 

One synagogue member explains that "you can go out in the evening after a service at the synagogue and be confronted with a gang of youngsters, who will either look you up and down, insult you, or try to pick a fight, and it's been like that for years."

 

Encouraging Jewish way of life

Scarred by the surge in anti-Semitism, roughly half the Jewish families in Villepinte have left town and moved their children to Jewish schools.

 

"We have fewer and fewer Jewish families who come to the synagogue, and that is due to several factors," says Charly Hannoun, president of the Villepinte Jewish Community. "Not just the factor of anti-Semitism, but also because of a shift to Jewish schools, because in Villepinte we don't yet have Jewish schools in the area."

 

Anxious to curb the exodus, Rabbi Altabe holds regular Torah classes to encourage members' spiritual growth. He eyes the synagogue not only as a place of worship, but as a place of exchange.

 

"I am very attached to the synagogue," he says. "If tomorrow me and my family leave, there will be no more service, nowhere for Jews to go.

 

"Our objective is to create a Jewish way of life, a community, a synagogue, an atmosphere, and you can only do that if you have a rabbi, a synagogue and everything that goes along with it."

 

To protect the Jewish way of life, dissuasion has become a necessary measure. Surveillance cameras border each corner of the synagogue. If in 10 years there have been no new arson attacks, there is a worry that such tight security might reinforce Jewish isolation.

 

Anti-Semitic taunts and insults have become an occupational hazard for Rabbi Davide Altabe.

 

The rabbi of Villepinte, however, refuses to give in to intimidation. He hopes that by remaining, he'll encourage the suburb's dwindling Jewish population to do so as well.

 

 

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