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In Paris, So Much At Stake At Europe's Oldest Jewish School

In the socially and religiously mixed neighborhood in northern Paris, security precautions at Lucien de Hirsch Lycée are high, but they were even before last week's attacks.

Paris's Lucien de Hirsch Lycée
Paris's Lucien de Hirsch Lycée
Leonardo Martinelli

PARIS — To get inside the Lucien de Hirsch Lycée in the 19th arrondissement of Paris, you have to swipe your finger through a finger sensor. After a camera inspects you, the heavy security door swings open. Now, you're blocked into a space with dark glass and a voice asks for your name and the reason for your visit to what happens to be the oldest Jewish school in Europe.

Once through, you suddenly hear the bursts of laughter and the other normal sounds of children playing.

These precautions were not put in place after last week's events in the French capital. "Security is part of everyday life in Jewish schools in France and elsewhere," says the school's Principal Paul Fitoussi.

Born in Tunisia, he spent many years in Marseille before coming to Paris. Smiling, Fitoussi exudes calmness. It's no coincidence: "I don't want the terrorists to succeed a second time," he says. "I do not want them to turn our lives completely upside-down."

The approach in Israel actually provides a model for education administrators."After attacks, schools insist on returning to normal life, though obviously reinforcing security measures," he adds.

For years now, this old building with visible brickwork and friezes has been under permanent police control. "Actually, in early January we had planned to get rid of the protection but after what happened it was increased and armed soldiers arrived," notes Fitoussi.

"Sorry," he laughs, "It's a Jewish privilege!"

Two paratroopers with machine guns are on the sidewalk in front of the main entrance, and another two are at a secondary exit. Along with the pimply faces of these four young soldiers, the school has taken other measures for reassurance: armored doors, coded locks on various rooms. This attention to security is now part of everyday life.

Lucien de Hirsch Lycée has more than 1,200 students and teaches from elementary level all the way to high school. It is a private Jewish school (but "Republican," emphasizes the principal, pointing out the French flag flying out front) and has extremely high educational standards: The high school always ranks among the best in France when it comes to school performance.

It costs between 300 and 400 euros per month, "but we also have many scholarships for those who cannot afford the fees," says Fitoussi. The curriculum includes the teaching of Judaism but it is definitely not just a place for the devoted — Jewish families of all types send their kids here.

These days continuing with "normal life" means that Lucien de Hirsch has maintained its usual syllabus. "I told the staff to explain to the students what has happened, not to hide anything," the principal explains. "But for the most part we have gone back to studying as usual. I had psychologists ready to come but decided against them; it would only increase tensions."

Fitoussi says grief and mourning take time to set in for people touched, even indirectly but such attacks. "The worst part is yet to come. In six months we will talk together about what happened," he says.

There was another Jewish school in this part of northeast Paris, but Lucien de Hirsch, in its present location of avenue Sécretan, has existed since 1901. Baroness Clara de Hirsch, who survived the Russian pogroms and came to Paris, financed the initiative. With no shortage of courage, the school was kept open during the entirety of World War II, and housed many orphans of those deported to concentration camps. But then on July 24 1944, just one month before the liberation of Paris, the Gestapo came to the school's doors and 71 children and 11 teachers were taken in the last convoy to depart the French capital. They were headed to Auschwitz-Birkenau; none of them returned.

The school's presence in this area of the city has, over the years, led many families to move from the typically Jewish areas of the city like the Marais, although a real Jewish quarter never really took hold. The school is located just a few hundred meters from one of the entrances to the Buttes-Chaumont park where, coincidentally, the Kouachi brothers — responsible for the deadly Charlie Hebdo attack — met with others to discuss Salafism and jihad.

A mix at risk

It's a multicultural area: Not only are there Jews, but those of Arab origin, old bourgeoisie (who live in the Haussmanian buildings opposite the park), and so-called bobos (new progressive bourgeoisie) too. There is low-income housing but it's not at all degraded — one building with red bricks and a bamboo garden in the courtyard was even designed by famed architect Renzo Piano. But now, fear is growing.

A short distance away from the school, the owner of Yarden Gel, a supermarket that sells frozen Kosher foods, is particularly busy. "The cashier did not come today," he explains, "She spent the whole of yesterday crying. Then she went to the doctor — she's very frightened."

The store owner adds, "The idiots who come and shout anti-Semitic insults have always been here, but recently the situation has gotten worse." Last year 7,000 French Jews moved to Israel — double the previous year's amount.

Sami Danan has lived in France for 33 years but completed his military service in Israel. "I have a country to go back to but I want to be the one who decides when. I wouldn't go back to Israel now," he says.

Al Haeche, his cafe-bar, is well-known in the neighborhood — especially his falafel and burgers. He points out a bullet hole in the window. "They shot it the night before Christmas Eve, this was the first time something like this happened. Then they came to tell me that I had to leave. But I won't; I'm not going anywhere."

Sami Danan says local Jews are looking for new ways to be ready. "Along with our friends and acquaintances we are creating a smartphone app that will allow us to warn others of any aggression. That way, we will know where there are problems. To be calm, you must be present and mark your territory."

Nobody has come to Sami's bar over the past few days, the only activity has been the hustle and bustle of guys delivering food to homes, "because the people here aren't prepared — the poor things, they're terrified. It's not like we're in Israel," he says.

A few meters down from the entrance there's a long gray wall, like the sky today in Paris. Above it, somebody has painted the words: "Just a little thought for Charlie Hebdo."

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