For A French Rabbi And His Muslim Team, There's Work To Be Done | KUER 90.1

For A French Rabbi And His Muslim Team, There's Work To Be Done

Mar 7, 2015
Originally published on March 7, 2015 9:15 am

Rabbi Michel Serfaty drives to his first appointment of the day, in a suburb south of Paris, just a couple miles from the notorious housing project where gunman Amedy Coulibaly grew up.

Coulibaly is the self-proclaimed Islamist radical who killed a police officer and later four people in a Kosher market in Paris terrorist attacks in January.

France has Europe's largest Muslim and Jewish communities. For the last decade Serfaty and his team have been working in bleak places like this, trying to promote understanding between the two populations.

Serfaty is still going to the same places since the attacks, but there's now a team of undercover police officers who accompany him everywhere. Still, The rabbi says he's more determined than ever.

"These are difficult times for France and especially for French Jews," he says. "But if anything, we realize our work is even more important."

The rabbi makes his way into a community center where his French Jewish Muslim Friendship Association has a stand at a local job fair. Serfaty hopes to recruit several more young people to help with community outreach in the largely Muslim, immigrant communities where most people have never even met a Jewish person.

"In these places they often have specific ideas about Jews," says Serfaty. "And if they're negative, we bring arguments and try to open people's eyes to what are prejudices and negative stereotypes. We try to show children, mothers and teenagers that being Muslim is great, but if they don't know any Jews, well this is how they are, and they're also respectable citizens."

Serfaty says people need to realize they must all work together to build France's future.

The rabbi takes advantage of funding from a government program that helps youths without work experience find their first job. Serfaty takes them on for a period of three years, giving them valuable training in mediation and community relations. Serfaty's recruits also study Judaism and Islam. And he takes them on a trip to Auschwitz, the Nazi concentration camp.

The rabbi takes advantage of funding from a government program that helps youths without work experience find their first job. Serfaty takes them on for a period of three years, giving them valuable training in mediation and community relations. Serfaty's recruits also study Judaism and Islam. And he takes them on a trip to Auschwitz, the Nazi concentration camp.

Serfaty is looking to hire three or four new people. With his affable manner and easy laugh, the job interviews are more like a friendly conversation. He needs Muslim employees for his work, but French laws on secularism forbid him from asking applicants about their religion. So Serfaty draws out the candidates' views and beliefs in discussion — and through provocative questions.

"What if I say to you Jews are everywhere and run the media and all the banks?" He asks one young woman. "What would you think?"

She tells Serfaty she believes Jews have been largely misunderstood and have a lot to contribute to society.

Some rather frightening misconceptions pour from a withdrawn, young man who's a recent convert to Islam. He's never heard of the Holocaust. He also believes there are 20 million French Jews. In reality France has approximately 7 million Muslims and a half-million Jews.

Serfaty is soon joined at the table by his current assistants, Mohammed Amine and Aboudalaye Magassa, to discuss the candidates. The rabbi says the most important thing is to find young people like them, who harbor no anti-Semitic feelings.

Magassa, 24, says working with Serfaty has been a great discovery. He says it's hard to understand the kind of people who carried out January's attacks.

"These people have weak minds and they are easily manipulated by social networks," he says. "They also don't understand a thing about religion and how it should be practiced."

Amine and Magassa say they are proud to be French and Muslim. They drive me to the station so I can catch a train back to the city center. I ask if they don't sometimes feel their work with the rabbi is futile. Not at all, says Amine.

"We are waking up people's consciences," says Amine. "This is a job that counts and we could have a real impact if there were more of us."

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

A French rabbi's been working for years to improve relations between Muslims and Jews. France has Europe's largest population of both groups. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley has reported on Rabbi Serfaty before, but she caught up with him again since terrorists killed 17 people in attacks last month on a satirical magazine and a kosher grocery store.

RABBI MICHEL SERFATY: (Speaking French).

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Rabbi Michel Serfaty drives to his first appointment of the day in a suburb south of Paris just a couple miles from a notorious housing project where gunman Amedy Coulibaly grew up. Coulibaly is the self-proclaimed Islamist radical who killed a police officer and later four people in a Paris kosher market. It's in such bleak places like this where Serfaty has worked for the last decade, reaching out to a mostly Muslim immigrant population.

SERFATY: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: One change in Serfaty's routine since the attacks is the pair of undercover police officers who now accompany him everywhere. But he says the attacks did nothing to dampen his resolve.

SERFATY: (Through interpreter) If anything, we realize our work is more important than ever.

BEARDSLEY: The Rabbi makes his way into a community center where his French Jewish Muslim Friendship Association has a stand today at a local job fair. He hopes to recruit several more young people to help with community outreach in largely immigrant communities where most people have never even met a Jewish person.

SERFATY: (Through interpret) But they often have specific ideas about Jews. If they're negative, we bring arguments and try to open peoples' eyes to what are negative stereotypes. We try to show children, mothers and teenagers that being Muslim is great. But if they don't know any Jews, well, this is how they are. And they're also respectable citizens.

BEARDSLEY: Serfaty uses funding from a government program that helps unqualified youths find their first job. He takes them on for a period of three years, giving them valuable training in mediation and community relations. Serfaty's recruits also study Judaism, and Islam and he takes them on a trip to Auschwitz.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking French).

SERFATY: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: With Serfaty's affable manner and easy laugh, the interviews are more a friendly conversation. While he needs Muslim employees for his work, strict French laws on secularism forbid him from asking applicants about their religion, so he draws out the candidates' views and beliefs in discussion.

SERFATY: (Speaking French).

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: "What if I say to you Jews are everywhere and run the media and all the banks?" He asks one young woman. What would you think? She tells Serfaty she believes Jews have been largely misunderstood.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking French).

SERFATY: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Misconceptions pour from a withdrawn young man. He's a recent convert to Islam. He's never heard of the Holocaust. He believes there are 20 million French Jews. In reality, France has approximately 6 million Muslims and half a million Jews. Serfaty is soon joined at the table by his current assistants, Mohammed Amine and Aboudalaye Magassa. The Rabbi says the most important thing is to find candidates like them who harbor no anti-Semitic feelings. Twenty-four-year-old Magassa says working with Serfaty has been a great discovery. He says it's hard to understand the kind of people who carried out January's attacks.

ABOUDALAYE MAGASSA: (Through interpreter) These people have weak minds, and they were manipulated by social networks. And they don't understand anything about religion and how it should be practiced.

BEARDSLEY: Amine and Magassa, who say they're proud to be French and Muslim, drive me to the train station. I ask if they don't sometimes feel the Rabbi's work is futile. Not at all, says Amine.

MOHAMMED AMINE: (Through interpreter) We are waking up people's consciences. This is work that counts, and it could have a real impact if there were more of us.

BEARDSLEY: Can you imagine, they ask, how mentalities would change if there were more people like us? Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.