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French Jews Face Uncertain
Future After Scandal

BY ELIZABETH BRYANT                                                                              ©2013 Religion News Service

Amid a finance scandal that touched the heart of France's Socialist government, a quieter drama played out this month as the country's top rabbi resigned his post after admitting to plagiarism.

Rabbi Gilles Bernheim offered his apologies for "borrowing" the work of others and lying about his academic credentials, ending a leadership crisis that has rocked the country's 600,000-strong Jewish community, the largest in Europe.

Now, as the search begins for a new grand rabbi, questions are mounting about which direction the religious leadership will take--notably whether it will continue Bernheim's move toward a more "modern" and perhaps more inclusive French Judaism, or return to a more inward-looking faith.

"Bernheim's personality attracted a certain consensus among intellectuals--even some non-practicing or believing Jews--because he advocated the need for Judaism to be open to the current issues facing society," said Martine Cohen, a specialist on Judaism at GRSL, a Paris-based research center on religion and secularism.

So far, no clear candidate or path forward has emerged, and elections for a new grand rabbi are not expected for months. It is also unclear whether the 60-year-old Bernheim can or will return to his post. For now, two senior rabbis are filling in.

Some critics are calling for a strong leader to shake up what they describe as a lethargic religious power structure--notably the Central Consistory, the chief religious authority composed of hundreds of synagogues in France and its overseas territories.

"Could the consistory be changed to also include Reform or Conservative Jews?" asks Cohen, describing more progressive branches of Judaism that are far more popular in the U.S. than in France. "That is not likely. But perhaps it could find a grand rabbi who is open to exchanges, without being afraid to be criticized as too liberal or too lax."

Born to a family of Ashkenazi Jews who traditionally led French Judaism, Bernheim won a hard-fought campaign for chief rabbi in 2008. His predecessor, Tunisian-born Joseph Sitruk, reflected the newer face of the faith, following the influx of tens of thousands of Sephardic Jews from North Africa a half-century ago.

While both men are Orthodox, observers say Bernheim nudged the community away from Sitruk's more "traditional" approach, reaching out to women, civil society and leaders from other religions.

"He's a rabbi who has done enormous things for the community," said Nathalie Cohen-Beizermann, who holds senior posts in several Jewish organizations. "He's really advanced the status of Jewish women in terms of religious divorce, in terms of violence toward women, and other projects that haven't yet been realized."

With Bernheim sidelined, "I'm afraid everything will grind to a halt," she added. "I'm persuaded that the next rabbi won't carry on his initiatives."


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