Jews are leaving France amid anti-Semitism. Emile Ackermann (‘23) and his wife Myriam are staying.
May 26, 2021
Where in France did you grow up?
I grew up in Strasbourg. It’s in France, near Germany.
What was the Jewish environment like there?
I grew up in an Orthodox environment, so I’ve been learning Jewish texts in a Jewish environment since I was born. My grandparents were pioneers in the Jewish community there, and they were kind of famous. I grew up being the “grandson of the Ackermanns.” They were doing everything–they had a youth movement, they were administrators of nearly all Jewish schools in Strasbourg. The Jewish youth movement in Strasbourg was known nationwide and whatever they could do, my grandparents did–they supported social movements, women, physically and mentally disabled people. I grew up with the idea of holistic Judaism that was religious but also very social.
Tell us more about your grandparents’ idea of holistic Judaism.
It’s a Judaism that is not antagonistic to the culture, but rather is something really mainstream. They were advocating for a Modern Orthodox culture in the sense of Rabbi Hirsch; they were spiritual students of his. I like to say that I was born into the only Modern Orthodox family in Strasbourg. And they created a Jewish environment that does not exist anymore there. The youth movement that they ran, for instance, was co-ed, meaning that boys and girls and men and women were mixed in activities, but there was one hour of Jewish studies every day. Today that does not exist. One hour of Torah a day, in a co-ed environment, doesn’t exist elsewhere in that combination. That environment in Strasbourg died with them. Now the area is fully black hat [ultra-Orthodox]. I grew up firmly religiously Jewish but also exposed to the modern world and that was important to my parents.
How did your parents balance Judaism and modernity?
I grew up with this idea that I was a religious Jew, and I wanted to stay a religious Jew, but my parents put me in non-Jewish schools for half my life so that I would be more open-minded and open to the world. I have those two sides in me: I think I know a lot about secular culture, and most of my friends were not Jewish, but my closest friends were Jewish. These childhood experiences gave me a lot of understanding in how the secular world works, and I think my parents succeeded in giving me an open mind. I was “the Jew” to my friends, but I didn’t mind explaining things about Judaism to them.
That must be wonderful training for becoming a rabbi!
When I look back now, I think being a rabbi was always my calling. I was always answering questions, and I was always eager to teach Torah, even to non-Jews. I grew up like this! I had a lot of both Jewish and non-Jewish friends, and I was always still religious. I would go right from shul every morning for shacharit, to phys-ed class.
How did this upbringing eventually lead you to rabbinical school?
Well, I went to yeshiva, then college. And then I met my wife Myriam. I told her, “You should become a rabbi,” and she said the same to me! So we both decided to become rabbis. (Myriam is now a student at Maharat.)
That’s such an inspiring story, especially in the context of everything we hear about how difficult it is to be Jewish in France. What has your experience been like as a born-and-raised French Jew?
When I was in college, I was living in a suburb reputed for not being welcoming to Jews, to say the least. However, I never had any problems. I was living there at a time when I didn’t wear a kippah outside, but more because of secularism than because of anti-Semitism. In France, when you wear a religious symbol it can be seen as aggressive. Then I changed my mind, and now I wear a kippah everywhere. But I was raised with this idea.
Kippah or not, I have always been openly Jewish, and I talked about Jewish things and didn’t shy away from Jewish subjects. I never had a problem, after I decided to wear a kippah. I never had a bad encounter, even in the difficult suburbs. I even went on national television to say this, and there was backlash.
Given the high rates of anti-Semitism in France, did you ever consider moving to Israel?
Well, I said to myself, “You can make aliyah if you want, but don’t do it because you are afraid.” There is still Jewish life in France, and there are opportunities to build Jewish life, too. There are still Jews in France. I have publicly stated a lot of times that I am a proud Jew in France, and that there is still a Jewish future in France.
…which brings us to the most important question of this interview. How are you and your wife going about building that Jewish future in France?
We want to create a thriving Modern Orthodox community in France. To that end, Rabbi Jeremy Borovitz and Rabbi Rebecca Blady, who co-founded Base Hillel Berlin in Germany, have been a big influence on us. We met Rabbi Rebecca at Maharat when we came to visit. We thought, “Well, that’s kind of what we want to do in France, either permanently or as a first step as a community.” So we decided to go this way. They and Hillel really helped us organize our thoughts and goals to put Base Paris in place. We didn’t know whether it was going to take off or not. We just planned a month and a half, so six or seven weeks, in the center of Paris. More than 200 individuals came there in six weeks. So we saw that as confirmation that people needed what we wanted to provide. We were actually very inspired by the Bayit, so the type of activities we organized at Base Paris ranged from shiurim, Shabbat services, and meals, to social justice actions like packing and delivering Shabbos meals for low-income families.
When we continued this work into the fall, we did so under the name Ayeka for funding reasons. We have continued giving shiurim and running the kollel that Myriam created called “Kol Elles.” We also bring a lot of guest speakers to the community. For instance, we are close with a new student at Maharat, Hannah Ruimy (‘25), and she gave a class on Tanakh.
It sounds like you are already making great strides in building French Jewish life, despite the challenges.
Yes. Certainly, I know a lot of people, friends and family, who have suffered from anti-Semitic encounters and experiences in France. It exists and we should not be afraid to talk about this, but I think my battle today is to fight for a more positive way of defining our Judaism, because today, a lot of French Judaism is about anti-Semitism. Yes, we need to fight anti-Semitism, but we also need to define Judaism outside what other people think about Jews. If we let Judaism simply be defined in terms of reaction to anti-Semites, then in that case the anti-Semites have already won.
What makes you and your wife so strongly committed to doing this work in France?
For Myriam and myself, it is really a calling. What we want to bring to France already exists in Israel and the United States. In France, the state of Jewry is very binary: You’re either Reform/secular or you’re Haredi. We found a lot of people who don’t fit that mold, and that is where our Modern Orthodoxy comes in. Young women, for instance–they need to grow up with the idea that you can be a woman with religious power and you can live a Judaism that is open to the world without renouncing your religious ideals. It’s a calling, really. We love France; we cannot see ourselves living anywhere else. There are a lot of problems we need to fight there.
You and Myriam have done so much good already!
We are very busy. We work on our Jewish community-building full-time, in addition to our rabbinical studies. Myriam is also a teacher, and she is writing her PhD right now. She has a daily Daf Yomi podcast. I have a weekly podcast, we are in fellowships. As I mentioned, my wife created the first female kollel in France, so we are giving classes for that. We are learning Torah and teaching Torah, and we are also learning the skills to teach Torah. And that’s really how we see our life–turning into a community beit midrash and synagogue, promoting social justice. Our model is kind of the holistic Jewish community where people are engaged to do basically everything.
People are starting to take notice of your work.
Yes. There has been lots of press coverage in the last few years, even in French national media.
We wish you the best of luck in your studies and your important work in France!