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Jewish schools' growth worries some French

(ran PW, PS editions)

It's nearing 9 a.m., but the latecomers still hurry through the black iron gates of Beth Hanna Lubavitch school. Small boys wearing embroidered skullcaps, school bags bouncing on their backs. Girls in long, old-fashioned skirts.

The autumn morning rush briefly animates this grimy northeastern Paris neighborhood of African immigrants and working-class French _ and testifies to the surging popularity of Jewish schools in France.

Some 2,000 children study in this sprawling cement building, which offers an Orthodox Jewish education from kindergarten through high school.

"As a Jew, because of the education, and because the problems we have in this world, I want my kids to be among other Jews," said Aliza Valensi, as she dropped off her four children. "I grew up this way, and I want my kids to follow my Judaism."

Such sentiments help explain why enrollment in France's Jewish schools has quadrupled over two decades. So does soaring violence and declining educational standards at French public schools. Today, roughly 26,000 students, or about 20 percent of French Jewish children, now study in religious schools.

The swelling classrooms buck a largely gloomy forecast for the world's third largest Jewish community. As in the United States, experts estimate about half of France's 600,000 Jews marry out of the faith. Whether their overall numbers are declining, however, remains a matter of hot debate.

Indeed, some scholars and religious leaders argue that the success of Beth Hanna and of other Jewish schools illustrates a growing religiosity among French Jews, which may bode well for the population.

Few have done a better job at selling Jewish education than the Lubavitchers, members of the mystical Hasidic movement based in New York City's Crown Heights.

Although growth has leveled off at more mainstream Jewish establishments around Paris, enrollment at some 100 area Lubavitch schools, including Beth Hanna, is growing at a brisk 10 percent annually. Strikingly, most students come from non-Lubavitch families.

"People want to bind more deeply with their cultural roots," said Beth Hanna's director, Andre Touboul, who sports the trademark bushy beard and black bowler hat of Hasidic men.

"And because we are Lubavitch, we are open to everyone, regardless of their degree of religious observance."

Behind Touboul's spotless desk hangs a photograph of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the deceased spiritual leader of the Lubavitch movement. A recent interview is frequently interrupted by phone calls from parents and teachers.

"Parents are looking for a major Jewish education, with good results," Touboul said. And 20-year-old Beth Hanna delivers.

From 8:45 a.m. until 6 p.m., students follow a grueling schedule that mixes religious and secular subjects. Morning hours are dedicated to studying Jewish laws and philosophy, biblical texts and scholarly commentaries. Afternoon classes follow a secular curriculum required by French law, with Hebrew taught as a foreign language. The latest, 1999, government survey ranked Beth Hanna among the top private schools in France.

"Beth Hanna is a good school, it's been well classed nationally," said parent Jacqueline Aknin, who described herself as an Orthodox Jew, but not a Lubavitcher. "And besides, my kids can't eat kosher at public schools."

Oddly, experts say, Jewish school enrollment grew after a 1990s ban on wearing Muslim headscarves in public schools. When the ban extended to other forms of religious expression, Jewish parents looked elsewhere.

But some critics argue Jewish schools have further alienated an Orthodox minority from France's fiercely secular society _ which includes most French Jews.

"They believe they must bring Jews back to the Torah," Podselver said. "But what can be dangerous is they have distanced themselves from French subjects _ including literature and philosophy _ all that constitutes French culture."

Esther Benbassa, author of several books on Jews in France, agrees. "This return to Jewish religiosity is expressed by closure and rejection of outside life," she said.

Others doubt that, apart from preaching to the ultrafaithful, the schools have done much to revive Jewish life. "The great majority of French Jews, even North African Jews, don't practice anything. They don't even go to synagogue," said Michael Williams, rabbi of a Conservative synagogue in Paris. "The phenomenon of Orthodox schools is like a wave on a beach. It comes crashing in. But then it goes out."

But right now, there are no signs the tide is changing. "Maybe the critics are right," said Beth Hanna's director, Touboul. "But we're still getting new students. It's a long wave, and I don't see the crest."