Rabbi Moshe Sebbag, spiritual guide of the Great Synagogue of Paris, visited Pittsburgh last week to mourn the passing of Joyce Fienberg and the 10 other martyrs murdered during Shabbat services in the Tree of Life building on Oct. 27.
Sebbag, whose congregation regularly welcomes global dignitaries and meets in an 1,800-seat 19th-century architectural marvel financed by the Rothschild family and designed by Alfred-Philibert Aldrophe — the French architect who worked on the Exposition Universelle of 1855 and the Exposition Universelle of 1867 — brought the sympathies and consolation of 600,000 French Jews, noted Rabbi Alvin Berkun during Fienberg’s funeral, held at Congregation Beth Shalom on Oct. 31.
In an interview afterwards, Sebbag said that while there is a tremendous bond between Jews around the world, for him, the connection to Pittsburgh is more personal. Fienberg’s son, Anthony, lives in Paris with his family.
“I have a friend in the shul, who prays with us every Shabbat, and he made a bat mitzvah there and is involved in all aspects of synagogue life,” said Sebbag. “His mother came to my shul and I felt as though I needed to be here for him.”
Sebbag, no stranger to anti-Semitism, noted that typically, it’s American Jews expressing solidarity with their French cousins.
“When attacks happened in France,” he said, “many Americans came to express solidarity.”
The rabbi said that Jews in his community were beside themselves at the horror of what happened here.
“What else could they say other than this is terrifyingly awful? These are Jewish martyrs” who were struck down in a synagogue, he said.
Sebbag’s congregation hosted a memorial service in memory of the 11 martyrs. Among those attending was Christophe Castaner, France’s minister of the interior.
The two-day visit was Sebbag’s first to the United States. Apart from attending the funeral, sitting with the family during shiva and traveling to the makeshift memorials outside of Tree of Life, Sebbag observed life in the Steel City. He spoke with residents and came to appreciate the similarities and subtle differences between members of the Jewish community in France and America.
“French Jews see their lives as being in France, and in America, the Jews here are the same,” he pointed out. But those who live in the States genuinely believe they “are safer,” that “we can’t feel the danger. It’s very rare,” said the rabbi. In France, however, “there is a certain stress.”
Having had the opportunity to see people outside of Tree of Life standing together as one, “paying honor to the dead,” he said it was similar to when Mireille Knoll, an 85-year-old Holocaust survivor was stabbed to death in Paris in March in an act officially described by French authorities as a hate crime.
After Knoll was killed, “all people came to demonstrate French solidarity,” said Sebbag.
Shortly before leaving Pittsburgh, Sebbag tried to process what he had experienced.
“The community here is very special, the people are very special,” he said. “People here feel what happened. They’re profoundly upset by it, but they understand the irregularity of this.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at email@example.com.