Could Run-of-Mill French Suburb Be Global Model of Religious Tolerance?

Jews Join Other Faith in 'Esplanade of Religions'

Faithful Experiment: Jews are joined by leaders of other faiths at a Tu B’Shvat tree-planting ceremony in the Paris suburb of Bussy-Saint-Georges.
getty images
Faithful Experiment: Jews are joined by leaders of other faiths at a Tu B’Shvat tree-planting ceremony in the Paris suburb of Bussy-Saint-Georges.

By Anne Cohen

Published May 05, 2013, issue of May 10, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

A knot of about 100 people stood under a steely winter sky January 26 to plant a tree for Tu B’Shvat in the Paris suburb of Bussy-Saint-Georges.

The town’s 120-family strong Jewish community was out in force for the celebration, which mirrored similar rites held around the world. Here, however, a few things stood out as different: a delegation of brightly dressed Buddhist nuns, the Taiwanese ambassador to France, two Catholic priests and a large mosque under construction next door.

The diverse gathering reflects an unusual and inspirational multi-faith experiment in Bussy-Saint-Georges, an otherwise run-of-the-mill French suburb of 25,000 that has sprung up from farmland 20 miles east of Paris.

Jews have joined Muslims, Catholics and Buddhists in planning a sprawling “Esplanade of the Religions” that will include houses of worship from each of the faiths.

“In France you put a bar of separation between yourself and your neighbors,” said Guy Benarousse, an Algerian Jew who has served as the local rabbi since he moved his family to Bussy in 2005. “Here, we’re going to show everyone how to live together.”

Still in its infancy, the campus could serve as a model for multi-faith cooperation in France, which has been beset by intolerance toward religious minorities and also has a strong secular tradition of avoiding government involvement in any religious projects.

The unspoken question of whether or not Jews and Muslims might be at odds was addressed head on by an unusual request from Benarousse. He demanded that the nascent community reflect the one he left in North Africa: Jews and Muslims living side by side.

“As a symbol, I asked that the mosque be built next door to the synagogue, “ he said. “The point is to say, ‘We can disagree, but we have to talk to each other.’”

Farid Chaoui, vice president of the Muslim community association TAWBA, agrees. “There have been no problems — on the contrary! Jews and Muslims, especially in North Africa, lived for centuries together.” Chaoui, 58, also from Algeria, added that he and Benarousse often reminisce together. “We joke that we’re cousins,” he said.

Bussy may at first seem like an unlikely place to serve as a “laboratory of tolerance,” as the town’s mayor puts it.

The town had just 500 residents in 1988, when the French government sought to expand suburbs in the outer reaches of the metro area by buying up farmland for housing. It has grown rapidly in recent years, driven mostly by the rising cost of housing within easy access of Paris.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • What does the Israel-Hamas war look like through Haredi eyes?
  • Was Israel really shocked to find there are networks of tunnels under Gaza?
  • “Going to Berlin, I had a sense of something waiting there for me. I was searching for something and felt I could unlock it by walking the streets where my grandfather walked and where my father grew up.”
  • How can 3 contradictory theories of Yiddish co-exist? Share this with Yiddish lovers!
  • "We must answer truthfully: Has a drop of all this bloodshed really helped bring us to a better place?”
  • "There are two roads. We have repeatedly taken the one more traveled, and that has made all the difference." Dahlia Scheindlin looks at the roots of Israel's conflict with Gaza.
  • Shalom, Cooperstown! Cooperstown Jewish mayor Jeff Katz and Jeff Idelson, director of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, work together to oversee induction weekend.
  • A boost for morale, if not morals.
  • Mixed marriages in Israel are tough in times of peace. So, how do you maintain a family bubble in the midst of war? http://jd.fo/f4VeG
  • Despite the escalating violence in Israel, more and more Jews are leaving their homes in Alaska to make aliyah: http://jd.fo/g4SIa
  • The Workmen's Circle is hosting New York’s first Jewish street fair on Sunday. Bring on the nouveau deli!
  • Novelist Sayed Kashua finds it hard to write about the heartbreak of Gaza from the plush confines of Debra Winger's Manhattan pad. Tough to argue with that, whichever side of the conflict you are on.
  • "I’ve never bought illegal drugs, but I imagine a small-time drug deal to feel a bit like buying hummus underground in Brooklyn."
  • We try to show things that get less exposed to the public here. We don’t look to document things that are nice or that people would like. We don’t try to show this place as a beautiful place.”
  • A new Gallup poll shows that only 25% of Americans under 35 support the war in #Gaza. Does this statistic worry you?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.