French Jews Find A Sunny Home in Miami Beach


MIAMI BEACH, FL — (June 11, 2007)
R.C. Berman

hen French Jews bid au revoir to their country’s laissez faire attitude toward anti-Semitism, where do they go?


Israel and French-sections of Canada are classic choices. But in America, the new address of thousands of French Jews is the Miami-Dade area, a county in Florida where immigrants are welcomed and the weather is just as inviting.

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Lea Cohen moved from Paris in 2000 and found her niche as a real estate broker. She’s done brisk business matching countrymen with properties in Miami. She’s also found a spiritual home during weekly study sessions with Rabbi Yisroel Frankforter. He and his wife Louiza lead Chabad Activities for French Jewry in Florida, a position that grew out Rabbi Frankforter’s own Parisian roots.


On Sunday, (June 10) when Chabad honored Cohen as a Woman of Valor, they also kicked off a $2 million fundraising campaign toward the purchase of a new center for Francophone activities. Chabad shares space with the Jewish Educational Leadership Institute, where Rabbi Frankforter directs Miami Semicha Program to train and ordain rabbis. 


Once a trickle, the number of French Jews making their way to Miami has swelled into an unmistakable wave.


Sixteen years ago upon arriving in Miami, Rabbi Frankforter advertised Torah classes for French speakers. He received one reply. Then came September 11, 2001. Anti-Jewish incidents in France began to snowball and officials seemed increasingly to look the other way.


In 2006, Ilan Halimi, a 23-year-old Sephardic Jew was kidnapped and tortured by the “Barbarians” a gang with many Muslim members. Halimi was found dead, his body mutilated.


That same year, A Jewish soccer fan and a plainclothes police officer were forced to take refuge from a window smashing, epithet hurling mob after an Israeli team’s victory. Two months ago, the Representative Council of French Jewish Institutions reported that a driver in Lyon had been indicted “for having deliberately driven his car against two young Jews who were wearing kippas and were heading for a synagogue in Villeurbanne.”


With the election of Nicolas Sarkozy as France’s new president, there is renewed hope that life for the country’s Jews will improve, but many Jews there are not content to wait and see. Once a trickle, the number of French Jews making their way to Miami has swelled into an unmistakable wave. Several years ago, Rabbi Frankforter could complete his scheduled visits to French Jews in the Miami area, in two hours. Now his regular routine of teaching and counseling takes three full days a week.


“Many French Jews can get along with some English. They can ask directions to post office, but they cannot have a deep discussion in English,” said Rabbi Frankforter.


During the visits, the new émigrés often ask Rabbi Frankforter to clarify America’s approach to Judaism. Liberal Judaism has not gained much of a foothold in France, and many French Jews have been surprised to find themselves in synagogues where microphones are used on Shabbat and women serve as rabbis. Life in U.S. also means no state subsidies for religious education. Top dollar tuition bills shock French newcomers. Likewise many turn to Chabad for help finding competent immigration lawyers, doctors, and housing.


Other than one-on-one meetings, Chabad offers weekly Torah study classes and social get-togethers and holiday activities for French speakers. This core group of activities will one day be housed in the center’s new halls and classrooms. In addition, Rabbi Frankforter hopes to build a study hall for French rabbinical students and accommodations for French nationals scoping out the area for resettlement.


“A common language is an anchor in a culture that French Jews are struggling to understand,” said the rabbi.


“With the new center, they will have an address to turn to, a place to call home.”