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Nice's once vibrant Jewish community faces an uncertain future – Europe

This sleepy Mediterranean city has been a haven for Jews for nearly 1,000 years.

More than 15 years ago, this former shopping mall with a tradition of tolerance was home to the fourth largest Jewish community in France, with about 20,000 members. But the combined effects of anti-Semitism, terrorism, financial problems and assimilation have taken their toll.

Last year, for the first time since World War II, the French Consul General, a national organization providing religious services to Orthodox Jews, estimated that Nice's Jewish population had dipped below 3,000, although some local Jewish officials thought that number might be higher.

Security and the economy are changing lives for Jews across France, but they are especially affected in Nice, which lacks a vibrant economy and strong job opportunities that help maintain Jewish communities in other French capitals.

“[Nice] it is a small town with a small Jewish community and you really feel the wave of aliyah, "said Yaokov Parienti, a 29-year-old student, using the Hebrew word for immigration to Israel. Parenti's sister has already left for Israel, and her parents plan to leave soon.

"Does my community have a future? I don't know, "Parienti said. "I think it's a general problem for all the Jews in France. But it is only more felt in a little like ours. “

Several local Jewish officials cited a 2016 terrorist attack in which Islamist killed 86 people and wounded hundreds by plowing a truck across the popular Bastille Day waterfront as a watershed moment for the Jewish community. The attack was not aimed specifically at Jews, "but it introduced fear into the equation in a new way," said Simone Darmon, secretary general of the Constable local office.

French Jews celebrate the inauguration of the new Torah scroll at the Gran Nice synagogue on July 11, 2019.
Nice / Henri Belhassen

Rabbi Joseph Fitshock Pinson, a broadcaster for the Jabad Hasidic movement, believes the real number of Jews in Nice is at least 10,000, but he agreed that the 2016 attack "created a wave of outgoing people".

Nice still has several kosher restaurants and 15 synagogues, but most are struggling to reach the quorum of 10 men needed for workdays, according to Pinson. The once active Jewish movement Bnei Akiva closed its chapter in the city. And the Great Synagogue, formerly so crowded with Shabbat followers that the roar of their conversation echoed around the streets, now has more vacancies than the occupied ones.

Zahari Frankel, a 30-year-old Nice woman who immigrated to Israel in 2009, dated the turn of the Jewish community earlier in the anti-Semitic violence that began spreading during the Second Intifada, the violent Palestinian uprising that began in the fall of 2000. French immigration to Israel jumped after 2013, with nearly twice as many people in the last six years than in the six years before 2013.

"You started to get upset in the street," said Frankel, who moved from a Jewish school to a public school in 2001 and is wearing a jumper. "I began to threaten not only on the way to school, but on the hour. Because I'm Jewish. "

Parienti also wears armor and has never experienced harassment in Nice, but he said the effects of anti-Semitism were felt "indirectly".

"It caused a lot of people to leave," Parienti said, "especially after the 2016 attack."

The economic situation in Nice does not help matters. The Nice region, Alpe-Maritimes, has the third highest unemployment rate in France, and many Nice Jews have financial difficulties. According to Constable, about 120 of them receive community help.

"There are no real, career-wise opportunities here," Parienti said.

However, Nice has qualities that many Jews retain – not just Mayor Christian Estrosi's security policy. An ally of many French Jews – he was declared "Jewish at heart" and "a proud friend of Israel" in 2014 – the right-wing mayor is "an important element in convincing the Jews of Nice and inspiring a sense of security", said Frank Madison, president of the Mazrotti Jewish community in Nice.

Tram arriving at Garibaldi Square in Nice, France on August 10, 2010.
Common Mirabella / Wikimedia

Last year, the FRIC umbrella group of French Jewish communities praised Estrosi for handling the attack in which several men assaulted a Jewish man wearing a David's co-star in David in what officials described as an "anti-Semitic attack". Within hours, police detained four suspects, all from families who had emigrated from Muslim countries.

Several locals say the departure of thousands of Jews from Nice has strengthened the cohesion of those who remain. Madison's community, Mayan Or, has grown over the past five years from 84 families to 135, he said. Relations between the progressive and the Orthodox community in Nice are "positive and brotherly", a departure from the often acrimonious interactions between groups elsewhere in France.

"There is a determination, because of terrorism, to come together and express our Judaism," Medioni said.

In 2015, the Pinson Shabad movement opened a new community center in an old villa in downtown Nice and holds events for hundreds of people on Jewish holidays, he said. Attendance at the three Jewish schools in Nice, which has about 600 students, has increased significantly in recent years, Pinson added.

"Although, for the sake of truth," Pinson said, "this development in Jewish schools is probably due to the rise of anti-Semitism in public schools."

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