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.
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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.
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The Esplanade is mostly the brainchild of Hugues Rondeau, the town’s mayor since 1998. Rondeau, a Catholic, is no ordinary French public servant. His view of laïcité, the strict doctrine of separation of church and state, is more nuanced than most.

“The ‘Esplanade of the Religions’ comes from my intuition that the state should not stand in the way of faith because of intransigent secularization,” said Rondeau, 45. “The state must accompany religion to enable a kind of social peace.”

Growing up in a conservative French family (“We didn’t have Jewish friends,” he said), the mayor was not an obvious champion of inter-communal tolerance. But he has developed a particular sensitivity to the needs of other faith communities — especially Jews, who make up the smallest minority in the town.

“I wanted to show the Jewish community of Bussy that I appreciated their presence,” he said.

The road to acceptance hasn’t been smooth for Jews, who started moving out to the bedroom community in the early 1990s, along with Muslims and other native-born French residents.

In the absence of an established Jewish community, the residents have had to make do. When Miriam Rosilio, 49, moved to Bussy in 1993, there were virtually no Jews to speak of. Her two children were toddlers at the time, and she desperately sought to give them some sort of Jewish education. After finding out that another Jewish family with two children lived in the same building — a “total coincidence!” — Rosilio started hosting Hebrew school in her living room.

“We had to bring in a tutor from Paris, who would travel to our house on Sunday mornings,” she said, looking back. Seven years later, after attending an event hosted by the city, Rosilio realized she wasn’t alone. “We realized there were all these Jews in Bussy,” she said. “We had no idea.”

As a result, Miriam and Michel Rosilio, 48, founded Association J’Buss, the local Jewish association, which Michel Rosilio went on to lead until last year. There are still no Jewish day schools in Bussy. But Sunday Hebrew school is now held in a synagogue, housed in a prefabricated trailer and taught by a rabbi.

Once the Esplanade is complete, each faith community will have its own place of worship, including the mosque, a Laotian Buddhist pagoda, a new synagogue and a $20 million Taiwanese Buddhist temple. A Catholic church already stands adjacent to the planned holy quarter.

Rondeau admitted that some locals had misgivings about the plan. “Some people were worried that I was creating a religious supermarket,” he said. “It’s not because you have a synagogue next door that the rabbi is going to ring your doorbell and try to convert you.”


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