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French Municipality Names City Street for Jewish Educator

In his vision for Jewish values, Russian immigrant spoke truth to power

By , Aubervilliers, France

In 1963, Rabbi Shalom Mendel Kalmanson approached the city of Aubervilliers seeking permits to open a new Jewish day school. Jack Ralite, then the city’s minister of education and a member of the French Communist Party, foreswore any such development: “In Aubervilliers there will be no private Jewish day school.”

Last week, when the city affixed the sign of a new street named Rue Mendel Kalmanson for the rabbi who passed away in 2011, the local Jewish community saw it is as confirmation of Kalmanson’s life work promoting Jewish education.

Ralite, who used his influence with the various government offices to block the opening of the school, underestimated Kalmanson. A survivor of communism with unflagging conviction, he worked relentlessly, refusing to let up until the Jewish day school opened.

“My father was a soldier. When he believed in something, he would not give up until he saw it fulfilled, no matter how long it took and how difficult it was,” says Haya Nisilevitch, Kalmanson’s daughter and today, the director of the Chne-Or Day School.

After much effort and political haggling, Kalmanson acquired the permits, and then the premises for the new Jewish day school. His challenges were far from over as municipal authorities withheld the sale of government land near the school in an attempt to stymie its growh. But Kalmanson maneuvered the obstacle course laid out for him by his opponents.

He purchased homes and rented space to house additional classes in the growing school. In the early 1980’s he purchased a large parcel of land with a vision for a new school building. Again, the city refused to grant him building permits to allow him to proceed, and the land stood vacant, as Kalmanson continued tirelessly.  

In April 2002, after local Muslim extremists burned down two buses that were parked on the vacant premises, things began to turn. With the spotlight on the school, Ralite, by then Aubervilliers’ mayor who 40 years earlier predicted that there will be no Jewish school in the Paris suburb, signed the permits to build the large building complex. The building was completed in 2003; Kalmanson, now well into his 80s, had prevailed.

Today the large educational complex, Chne-Or Day School, counts 650 students. The Jewish community, no stranger to the curse of anti-Semitism, has been blessedly quiet in recent years, with local Jews out and about wearing their identity fearlessly.

To be sure, apprehension has crept into the local Jewish community following the terror attacks in Paris, and while there’s been no noticeable move on the part of Aubervilliers’s Jews to leave, they have, says Nisilevitch, been transferring their children to Jewish schools where they feel they will be safer than in public schools.

After Kalmenson’s passing in 2011 at the age of ninety, Aubervilliers Mayor Jacques Salvator proposed naming a new street under construction near the school building for the city’s long time Jewish educator.

“A man who dedicated close to fifty years to our city promoting kindness, education and care for others, should be honored with a street named after him,” Salvator told the city council. The name was approved and the street sign was installed last week.

Kalmanson’s daughter reflects on the poignancy of her father’s struggle. “My father stood up to local government for his values and principles, for his love of Jewish education. And now they are honoring him for that.” The sign, she says, will serve as a reminder of his legacy: “If we stand up for what is right, we will ultimately be successful in our mission.”

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