Jewish residents of Paris crammed inside the city's historic Synagogue Nazareth Monday evening in an attempt to put words to their shock and grief following the gunning down of three young children and a father outside the Ozar Hatorah high school in Toulouse. Many of those words came straight from the Psalmist, the refrains mournful at time and hopeful at others, expressing the shared feeling that Western Europe's largest Jewish community had been targeted without cause or provocation.
Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbi Chaim Nisenbaum, vice president of the Consistoire, the Central Consistory of French Jews, called the memorial service for 30-year-old teacher and native Parisian Jonathan Sandler, his two sons Aryeh, 6, and Gavriel, 3, and seven-year-old Miriam Monsonego a uniting force that also served as a wake-up call for members to be extra vigilant.
The children attended the Chabad-run Gan Rashi elementary school in Toulouse, and were waiting for their bus when the gunman pulled up.
"We are afraid this can be emulated, that G‑d forbid, someone would want to do the same thing," stated Nisenbaum, who is also a member of the CRIF, the umbrella Representative Council of French Jewish Institutions. "And yet, we must continue to live and thrive. We cannot fear going outside. We have to go to school; we have to go to work. But we must take special measures to protect our citizens."
Throughout the tumultuous day, Jewish officials and French authorities united in a show of perseverance outside the Toulouse school, with President Nicolas Sarkozy pledging that the shooter, who opened fire from a motorcycle before heading inside the school, would be found and brought to justice. Investigators revealed later that bullets from the morning slaughter matched those in two separate fatal attacks against French paratroopers in Toulouse and Montauban, crimes that also involved a gunman aboard a motorcycle.
Following the attack, France's Interior Ministry beefed up security at Jewish schools throughout the country.
"I saw two people dead in front of the school, an adult and a child," one father told RTL radio, according to news reports. "Inside, it was a vision of horror, the bodies of two small children. I did not find my son; apparently, he fled when he saw what happened. How can they attack something as sacred as a school, attack children only 60 centimeters tall?"
Monday's service also included prayers for the speedy recovery of Brian Bijaoui, a 15-year-old student from Nice who was living in the Ozar Hatorah dormitories. His Hebrew name is Aharon ben Leah.
According to Rabbi Yehoshua Hecht, who was Bijaoui's counselor at a Chabad-run camp in Nice a few years ago, the boy "always had a smile on his face."
"He's a very sweet kid who's always telling jokes," said Hecht. "We all feel terrible. This is very sad news, no matter who you are. But all the more so when you know people who are involved."
CRIF deputy chairman Meir Habib, along with other Jewish officials, condemned the attack.
"We have no doubt that the attack was anti-Semitic. It is certain," he said. "Killing children from close range just because they are Jewish is an unimaginable horror. These are innocent children."
Calling the shooting "an attack on the whole Jewish community," Rabbi Aryeh Goldberg, deputy director of the Rabbinical Centre of Europe, similarly pledged that in time, "this act of barbarity and murder will be met with a Jewish response."
"We will bury the dead, look after the injured, and we will demand justice is pursued through the appropriate channels," he said. "If there are people who want to scare the Jewish community into submission, our response will be to show them that we will not be bowed. … We will build more schools, synagogues and other Jewish institutions."