Rabbi Jean-Paul Amoyelle, head of the Ozar Hatorah network of Jewish schools in France, was woken at 4 a.m. during a visit to New York with chilling news.
Jewish schools and synagogues in France had been targeted in a string of attacks in the past decade, many of them arson, but this was different.
A gunman had shot dead three children and a 30-year-old Hebrew teacher at his school in Toulouse, one of 20 in France with roots in the diaspora of Middle Eastern Jewry.
The shooting marks a tragic turn for Ozar Hatorah, which was created in the wake of the Holocaust in the mid-1940s by a Syrian-born Jew intent on improving the lot of Jewish communities in the Middle East and North Africa.
In 2001 a classroom was burned down at a “Ozar Hatorah”, or “Treasure of the Torah”, school in the Paris suburb of Creteil, but the perpetrator turned out to be a pupil.
Amoyelle said Monday’s attack was a sign of growing danger.
“This was deliberate. Anti-semitic and deliberate, I have no doubt,” Amoyelle said by telephone as he was due to return to France. “I plan to install a zone of reinforced security.”
The creator of Ozar Hatorah, Isaac Shalom, opened schools in countries including Morocco, Iran, Libya and Syria to respond to what his network described as disastrous educational conditions.
As the region underwent upheaval and war following the creation of the state of Israel, Ozar Hatorah also followed the path of Jewish emigration, starting schools in France from the late 1960s as large numbers of North African Jews crossed the Mediterranean to escape heightened regional tensions.
“I was in France in 1967. I began with a school in Sarcelles (a Paris suburb), and there was already one in Lyon,” said Amoyelle, who now oversees 20 schools across Paris and cities like Marseille, Strasbourg and Aix-les-bains.
“These are schools that are perfectly integrated in the community,” he added, describing the educational program as offering two possibilities: a straightforward French education as well as a Jewish education rooted in history and religion.
Today there are over 30,000 students enrolled in Jewish schools in France, according to the French Jewish association CRIF. The number of enrolments has stabilized since 2005, according to Jewish education expert Patrick Petit-Ohayon.
Ozar Hatorah offers what Amoyelle describes as “a certain security”, a precious commodity for parents made wary by the arson attacks. Guards stand at the door to check visitors and the railings were elongated after 2001.
Parents and pupils have been left shocked and bewildered in an area they thought was safe.
“This area is very calm and as far as I know there had not been any threats,” said Laura, a parent at the school, who declined to give her last name.
Her daughter said teachers had hurried them into various rooms, including the synagogue, when the shooting broke out. “I didn’t see anything, but I heard several shots,” she said.
“It was scary.”
Additional reporting by Chine Labbe and John Irish; editing by Geert De Clercq and Philippa Fletcher