It took several hours of traveling by bus, train, and foot for the 24 mission participants to reach Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, France. During the Shoah, the residents of the tiny mountain village, a Protestant community, sheltered more than 1,000 Jewish children, at great risk to their own lives.
“I couldn’t imagine it could be worth the time, but once we got there and began to understand how unique they were; they were one of the only communities that took in Jews and saved Jewish lives,” said Jay Lillianthal of Manalapan. “Once we talked to the mayor and community, we all felt it was worthwhile to be there.”
The Jewish Federation in the Heart of New Jersey’s mission to France, which took place Sept. 8-17, was filled with emotional highs and lows. The tour included Shabbat at the Grande Synagogue of Paris and a visit to the American cemetery in Normandy, where almost 10,000 soldiers who lost their lives around D-Day are buried.
“The beauty of participating in this federation mission came from the people I got to know, the stories that were told, and undoubtedly the friendships that I made,” said federation executive director Susan Antman.
For mission chair Jeff Schwartz, the trek to Le Chambon-sur-Lignon was the highlight. The federation group presented the mayor, Eliane Wauquiez-Motte, with a heart-shaped sculpture with an inscription that thanked the “righteous people” of the village for their “courage and humanity — helping change the course of history for your Jewish neighbors and all mankind.”
“We wanted those people to know they had our back and we won’t forget that,” said Schwartz, who speaks fluent French and came to know the French-Jewish community years ago when he was an exchange student. In fact, Schwartz came up with the idea of a mission to France after participating in a Jewish Federations of North America solidarity mission that took place after a series of terrorist attacks in Paris in 2015. Now the financial resources development chair at the Federation in the Heart of NJ, Schwartz said he thought a “high quality” trip would encourage donations to the annual campaign.
“I wanted to engage people in the [local] community and have them engage with each other,” he said. With the 75th anniversary of D-Day — June 6, 2019 — having just passed, “I figured, what better place than France?”
In advance of the group’s visit to Normandy, Schwartz prepared maps of the graves of the 22 Jewish soldiers from New Jersey, including one from Marlboro and one from Freehold. When the mission participants arrived, they laid a white rose on each of the graves and said Kaddish afterward. Schwartz recited “Keil Maleh Rachamim” on behalf of all of the fallen soldiers buried there.
Laurie Landy of Monroe described feeling “awestruck” visiting the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial that overlooks Omaha Beach, where Allied troops stormed ashore in a drive to defeat Hitler.
“I looked at the trip as an educational experience,” she said. “I wouldn’t describe it as a vacation, but I had a really great time. It took me a long time to process everything I saw and learned and I’m still processing it.”
France has the largest Jewish population in Europe, around 450,000. Schwartz said he was struck by what French Jews told him about the reactions of Americans who visit.
“Americans think they’re living under siege, and then they see they are not,” he said. “French Jews feel authorities are doing a very good job in protecting the community.”
However, Landy said she noticed observant men hiding their tzitzit (fringed undergarments), and wearing baseball caps rather than kippot in public.
Another group highlight was visiting a K-12 Jewish day school in a northern suburb of Paris with more than 600 children.
“It conveyed to me that French Jews were looking optimistically to the future,” Lillianthal said. “They wanted their children to be educated in how to live a Jewish life, and I left feeling, maybe Judaism will not die in France because they will keep it alive.”
The group toured Jewish sites in Paris, attended Shabbat services at the Grande Synagogue (where federation hosted Shabbat dinner with some community members), and met with a representative of the Jewish Agency for Israel.
“Every day had a meaningful Jewish experience,” said Schwartz.
They visited the Drancy Internment Camp and the former site of the Vel d’Hiv, a closed sports venue, where 13,000 Jews, mostly women and children, were rounded up from Paris in 1942 and kept without food or water. Mission members lit candles and said Kaddish for the 5,000 children deported from there for Auschwitz.
“Standing with my fellow travelers on the beaches of Normandy, then at the American cemetery, placing roses on the graves of young men who sacrificed their lives for our freedom, discussing the rise in anti-Semitism with the rabbi of the Grande Synagogue of Paris, presenting a gift to the mayor of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon for the heroic rescue of Jewish children, and sweating in the heat of the railway wagon used to carry Jews to Auschwitz at the Drancy internment camp,” said Antman, “all deepened my appreciation for genuine bravery, for my Jewish identity, and my amazing community.”