France elected a new chief rabbi on Sunday after a lengthy presidential-style campaign described by one communal figure as “an unprecedented battle between two radically different characters”.
The victor, Chief Rabbi Gilles Bernheim, the 56-year-old rabbi of Paris’s La Victoire Synagogue, beat Chief Rabbi Joseph Haïm Sitruk, 63, who led the French rabbinate for 21 years.
According to communal figures, the election had “turned American”, with a campaign that included video clips on the internet showing the younger rabbi jogging through Paris, comments on social-networking site Facebook, and advertising in the Jewish press. France’s main communal organisation, the Consistoire, responsible for electing the chief rabbi, had never seen such effort and cash invested in an election. One of the 300 members eligible to vote said: “I never got so many phone calls. The chief rabbi [Sitruk] himself left a message on my mobile phone and asked what he could do for me to get my support.”
Rabbi Sitruk was seen as the traditional candidate, “friendly and always ready to tell a joke”, and with a keen interest in business opportunities, such as the launch — during his term of office — of his own kashrut label in competition with the Consistoire label, a move which provoked fierce criticism.
A philosopher and academic, Chief Rabbi Bernheim is widely regarded as an intellectual. However, his supporters say his main quality is his inclusivity. “Bernheim is an open man,” said Jacques Garih, president of the Future of Judaism association. “Let’s face it, 99 per cent of the French are not Jewish, so it’s quite important to have interfaith dialogue. And he’s also open to Jews who are not Orthodox.” He is also expected to resolve the problems facing the Consistoire: “It is going through a tough crisis because Sitruk didn’t take matters in hand and Bernheim presented a serious programme to get the Consistoire back on track and improve its rabbinical school,” said religious and social-studies scientist Martine Cohen. “And Bernheim doesn’t address men exclusively. This is further progress.”
After his victory on Sunday, Rabbi Bernheim told Rabbi Sitruk that “it was time to unite” and offered to “work together”. One of Rabbi Sitruk’s students shed a tear. And as one voter told the JC, “the election was some show”.