(JTA) — The first thing Haim Korsia did after becoming chief rabbi of France was give his new office a thorough cleaning.
Next he redecorated to give the space a more modern look, placing his 30-inch model of a nuclear submarine — a gift from his previous stint as senior military chaplain — amid the volumes of scripture on his bookcase.
But it was what Korsia, 51, did next that convinced many French Jews that this short and energetic man, who assumed the title in June, was serious about modernizing the religious institutions of a crisis-stricken community still reeling from an increase in anti-Semitic violence and scandals involving two of Korsia’s predecessors.
In July, Korsia appointed a woman, Dolly Touitou, to one of two new positions created to handle complaints against French Jewry’s religious services organization — a bold move in a predominantly Sephardic community, which has been slower than others to embrace gender egalitarianism. Before 1990, women could not vote in Consistoire elections, nor could they stand for office themselves until 2006, when a French judiciary body overruled the prohibition.
“Appointing a woman was a signal of where Rabbi Korsia stands on women’s role in the Jewish community,” said Rabbi Moche Lewin, an adviser and friend.
Korsia also staked out an unorthodox position on those born to non-Jewish mothers and Jewish fathers, embracing them as “seed of Israel” even though they are not considered Jewish according to traditional religious law. He also issued a directive against honoring anyone who refuses his wife a religious bill of divorce in response to a scandal that exploded on the watch of his predecessor.
Yet Korsia seems reluctant to overstate his progressive agenda. That’s understandable in a country where chief regional rabbis speak openly about women as duty bound to serve men and where, as recently as 2006, a chief regional rabbi from Strasbourg opposed the election of any woman to a position of leadership within his Orthodox Jewish community.
“I wouldn’t say we need reforms exactly, but we do need movement, very much so,” Korsia told JTA in his office at the headquarters of the Consistoire, the Orthodox-leaning organization that employs Korsia and has provided religious services to French Jewry since its establishment two centuries ago under Napoleon.
Stepping into office amid major shifts in the groups that make up this large community — including increasing emigration and a religious awakening in some circles that is occurring in parallel to growing assimilation in others — Korsia sees the movement as “necessary on both levels: internally within the Jewish community to produce unity, and externally in how the community communicates with the non-Jewish world.”
In the external relations department, Korsia has it covered.
As the former senior chaplain in the French military, he speaks with patriotic passion in inclusive, nonsectarian terms about his country — a style that has earned Korsia much respect in political and media circles. His sense of humor, informal demeanor and broad interests — he admires the abstract art of Mark Rothko and Pierre Soulages and is a supporter of the Paris Saint Germain soccer team — also have endeared him to the French public. His recent comparison of non-Muslims in the Middle East to Holocaust victims earned him praise from the Vatican’s official radio station.
But it is Korsia’s willingness to challenge long-held positions among the French Jewish establishment that truly distinguishes him from spiritual leaders in this community of approximately 500,000, Europe’s largest.
Born in Lyon to an eminent rabbi who immigrated with his wife to France from Algeria in the 1950s, Korsia’s actions suggest a preference for inclusion and unity over the strict adherence to tradition.
“That is my No. 1 task: Strike a balance, find unity,” he said.
His peers confirm this.
“With Rabbi Korsia, there is no Ashkenazis and Sephardim,” said Avraham Weill, a senior rabbi from Toulouse. “He just doesn’t think along those lines.”
Ashkenazim, who used to be the majority in French Jewry, currently are thought to make up slightly more than 30 percent of the community after the Holocaust and the waves of immigration by hundreds of thousands of Jews from France’s former colonies in North Africa in the 1950s — a movement that coincided with a larger migration of Muslims, who now number roughly 6 million in France. Many of the North African Jews set up their own synagogues in France, but in recent years the two contingents have moved closer to each other, with many synagogues having both Ashkenazi and Sephardic congregants.
Earlier this year, Korsia also held meetings with all senior French rabbis in which he reminded them of the dos and don’ts of handling divorce cases, after which he issued a statement against “showing respect to anyone who does the shameful act of spitefully refusing to give his wife a get,” using the Hebrew word for a religious divorce.
The actions were partly a response to the discovery of a video in which Korsia’s interim predecessor, Michel Gugenheim, was seen advising a woman to buy a get from her ex-husband for $90,000. “L’Affaire du guet,” as the French media called the case, followed an earlier scandal that in 2013 forced Gugenheim’s predecessor, Gilles Bernheim, to resign after he was discovered to have plagiarized parts of two books and used an academic credential he did not possess.
On Bernheim, Korsia said he “did a lot of good and should not be judged by one error.”
On Gugenheim, Korsia said he had “no intention of judging predecessors.”
On issues of intermarriage, Korsia has also shown himself to be more accepting than his predecessors. Those he calls the seed of Israel “should be brought into the fold,” even though such children are not considered Jewish under Orthodox Jewish law.
And though he says the process that such individuals need to undergo before they can marry Jewish should remain unchanged, Korsia rejects the use of the word “conversion” to describe it.
“In such cases we’re talking about regularization, not conversion, because that’s like saying that they are not Jewish, and that’s not entirely true,” the rabbi said.
Such notions are bound to irk traditionalists, according to Jean-Claude Lalou, who heads the progressive Future of Judaism group. Lalou says there are still no signs of genuine resistance to Korsia within the Consistoire, “perhaps because Rabbi Korsia has not yet applied these ideas.”
If such opposition does materialize, it wouldn’t be the first time. In 2004, then chief rabbi Joseph Sitruk forced Korsia, at the time an adviser to Sitruk, to cancel a planned trip to Auschwitz with the comedian Dieudonne M’bala M’bala.
Dieudonne has been convicted multiple times of inciting hate against Jews and become an international icon for anti-Semites and Holocaust deniers. But Korsia thought the trip “could turn Dieudonne around.” Sitruk saw the matter differently and overruled him.
“Maybe Dieudonne would be a different person today had the trip been allowed to happen,” said Lewin, Korsia’s friend. “Now we’ll never know.”
Dieudonne’s provocations are believed to be one of the catalysts of a near doubling of anti-Semitic incidents in France in the first seven months of 2014 compared to the corresponding period last year. That increase, in turn, is among the causes of a record level of immigration by French Jews to Israel. For the first time in decades, more than 5,000 of them arrived in 2014.
But Korsia, who declined to speak about his family except to say that all his children live in France, sees a silver lining, fostering more unity among those who remain. As for those who leave, he believes many will return.
“Take it from me, being French is not something you can easily put aside,” he said. “Even if you try.”