THOUGH he never reached the pinnacle of being Chief Rabbi of France - a post to which his abilities entitled him - Meyer Jais played a greater role than any spiritual leader in forming the present French-Jewish population into a comparatively unified community.
As the first Sephardi (non-European) Chief Rabbi of Paris from 1955 until 1979, when he resigned (his reason was advanced age, though he was only 71), Jais was a powerful advocate of the removal of the prejudices that divided the French-born Jews and the immigrants from North Africa. Bitterness and recrimination were a stark feature of this relationship, with the immigrants accusing their French-born brethren of indifference to their economic plight. The French- born Jews appeared to look with some alarm at the influx of many thousands of North African Jews, lacking in social graces but overflowing with religious enthusiasm.
Born in Medea, Algeria, but having studied in France, both at a rabbinical seminary and at the Sorbonne, where he graduated in 1933, Jais understood more than most French-Jewish leaders, secular and spiritual, the urgent need for a religious transfusion. French Jewry since the days of the French Revolution, when the emancipation was intended to provide them with every right as a citizen but none as a people, had long periods of social integration when the religious lamp shone dimly. The arrival of East European and German Jews following the Nazi persecution had a stimulating effect but secularism remained a strong force.
Vichy collaboration in the deportation of over 100,000 French Jews to Nazi camps during the Second World War, reduced the community to some 185,000 by 1945 and had a demoralising effect on the survivors. Without the influx, in large masses, of North African Jews the French-Jewish community, shocked and bewildered, many questioning their religious faith and feeling betrayed by their Christian neighbours, might well have declined into insignificance.
With his unusual experiences and his clear vision, Jais was an ideal person to remove the barriers between French and North African Jews. His first rabbinic post in 1935 in Hagenau, Alsace, gave him a close insight into the different traditions of the Ashkenazi Jews, with their European orientations.
When war broke out, he became an army chaplain in Tunisia. After the French defeat he served as a rabbi in Constantine, Algeria. Significantly, he was chief chaplain to the Free French forces in Africa.
When he was elected chief rabbi of Paris, in succession to Rabbi Jacob Kaplan, who went on to become an influential Chief Rabbi of France, Jais was told by the communal leader, Baron Alain de Rothschild, that the community would trust his spiritual guidance at a time when Jews faltered between renewal and abandonment of their religion and when resurgent antisemitism brought back the whiff of the crematorium.
However, Chief Rabbi Kaplan saw a more optimistic development, which events were to justify. There were, he said, 'unmistakable signs' of a strong revival of Judaism in France.
In approaching this revival, Jais could be both advanced and conservative. He translated a Hebrew prayer- book into Latin characters, suitable for both Sephardim and Ashkenazim, to enable more than 50,000 Jews who were unable to read the Hebrew script, but were eager, to pray at least once a year, on Yom Kippur, in a synagogue. But Jais angrily rejected any idea of synthesising Sephardi and Ashkenazi customs and he clashed with Chief Rabbi Kaplan over relations with the Roman Catholic church. Rebuffing the cautiously friendly gestures from the Vatican, Jais accused the Church of trying to convert the Jews.
Kaplan was offended by Jais's criticism and saw it as an affront to his own efforts for establishing more friendly and meaningful relationships with the Christian communities.
Although when he announced his retirement at a comparatively early age - in Judaism a rabbi becomes increasingly wise with the passage of time - denying any 'imcompatibility of views', these clashes may well have weighed on his mind.
From being an assimilated community whose future was in doubt, French Jewry has flourished both in numbers and in religious vitality. Now well over 700,000 strong - almost three times as large as the Anglo-Jewish community, and the fourth largest Jewish community in the world - French Jewry has become more self-confident and more assertive.
Though the hopes for French Jewry are probably exaggerated, just as the cries of doom were, the immense renewal of religious identity and social awareness among the mass of French Jewry is truly remarkable. In this Rabbi Meyer Jais played a vital role.Reuse content