PARIS (JTA) – On their 40th wedding anniversary, Avital and Natan Sharansky went sightseeing in the City of Lights.
But the Sharanskys didn’t follow the trail ofÂ countless couples who come here to kiss at the Eiffel Tower or slip so-called love locks on bridges over the River Seine. Theirs was an itinerary that demonstrated a different kind of commitment.
“Avital is taking me to see all the places where she organized protest rallies for my release,” Natan Sharansky, the chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, told JTA in an interviewÂ ThursdayÂ at his organization’s Paris headquarters.
There were about a dozen such places. To Sharansky, French Jewry’s strong mobilization on his behalf 25 years ago symbolizes both what Israel stands to gain and what EuropeÂ stands to lose as French immigration to Israel reaches record levels.
Home to Europe’s largest Jewish population of 500,000, France surpassed the United States last year to become the world’s second-largest source of Jewish immigration to Israel, with 3,263Â emigrants making aliyah – second only to Russia. This year, 5,000 French Jewish immigrantsÂ are expected in Israel, well over double the 1,917 that made the move in 2012.
Such figures should be music to the ears ofÂ Sharansky, 67, a former Israeli Cabinet minister who spent nine years in a Soviet prison for his attempts to immigrate to Israel and has led the Jewish Agency – the organization principally responsible for facilitating global aliyah – for four.
Yet his happiness over his organization’s success is mixed with sadness over the vulnerability it reflects in a robust community that many fear is nearing extinction. Some, including Sharansky, believe French aliyah heralds the end of Jewish life in Europe.
“Something historic is happening,” Sharansky said. “It may be the beginning of the end of European Jewry.”
It is an observation that brings no joy to Sharansky, himself a Europe-born mathematician and chess prodigy who has revolutionized the Jewish Agency by expandingÂ its traditional focus on aliyah to includeÂ strengthening Diaspora Jewish identity – a move he said was merely “contextualizing” aliyah but which critics feared wouldÂ de-emphasizeÂ it.
“I think it’s a tragedy for Europe,” he said. “What is happening in France, the strongest of Europe’s Jewish communities, reflects processes taking place elsewhere in Europe. I keep asking people if Jews have a future in Europe.”
Sharansky was cheerful in his encounters with soon-to-be Israelis like Oury Chouchana, a 36-year-old lawyer who is preparing to leave next week to study Hebrew at Ulpan Etzion in Jerusalem – the same Hebrew immersion program where Avital Sharansky studied 40 years ago.
“It may interest you to hear that Etzion is a serious, serious shidduch scene,” said Sharansky, using the Hebrew term for a marriage match.
The mixed blessings of French aliyah were apparent at a sendoff ceremonyÂ WednesdayÂ for several hundred emigrants at the Synagogue de Tournelles. The ceremony took place a few days after the Le Monde newspaper published an emotional plea against aliyah by the well-known Jewish author and activist Marek Halter.