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.