South Florida is experiencing an influx of Jews who fear persecution in France
Rod Kukurudz decided to uproot his family from a comfortable life in France to Surfside when his then 16-year-old daughter, Audrey, came home one night in 2005 -- upset and fearful. ''Dad,'' she told him, ''now even if it's hot I have to wear a scarf to hide my Star of David,'' while riding the Paris Metro. French Jews living in South Florida told The Miami Herald that hostility from Islamic militants in France after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States spurred them to leave. Departures surged after last year's abduction and death of Ilan Halimi in France. The 23-year-old Halimi, a French Jew of Moroccan parents, was kidnapped Jan. 21, 2006, by a gang of youths calling themselves the ``Barbarians.'' ''The atmosphere created by that episode, plus other incidents and the general hostility of Muslims in France toward Jews, is what's behind my decision to leave,'' said Kukurudz, who now lives with his wife and their three daughters, including Audrey, in Surfside.
Vanessa Elmaleh is among a growing number of South Florida immigration attorneys helping French Jews secure U.S. visas -- but not necessarily asylum. ''Asking for asylum can be risky,'' said Elmaleh, a French Jew herself. ``If they deny your petition, they can deport you.'' Immigration court figures show a slight uptick in the number of asylum applications from French nationals starting in 2003 -- but those figures do not specify whether applicants were French Jews. South Florida immigration attorneys say the majority of French Jews are arriving on immigrant, investor and business visas. Kukurudz, for example, obtained an investor visa with Elmaleh's help and now runs Citizen Events, organizing events for companies and organizations.
Pascal Cohen left his family behind in France and arrived in Aventura a few weeks ago on a business visa to open a South Florida subsidiary of a high-end chocolate brand called Cote de France. His wife and two young daughters plan to leave France and join him later this year.
There are no official U.S. government figures on the number of French Jews here, but officials in U.S. Jewish organizations said it could be anywhere from 2,000 to 4,000 in South Florida -- mostly Miami-Dade. ''I would say they're in the thousands now,'' said Mendy Levy, a rabbi at The Shul synagogue in Surfside. ''There is no question of an increase in the number of French Jews in South Florida, and there's an expectation that that rate of increase will accelerate,'' said Jacob Solomon, executive vice president of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation. 'French Jews see the handwriting on the wall and say, `We're not going to wait until it's too late.' '' None of the French Jews interviewed was attacked in France, but all expressed fears the Halimi incident was a preview of more militant violence to come. The latest State Department human rights report, issued last week, cited more anti-Semitic incidents in France during the first nine months of 2006 than during the same period in 2005 -- but fewer than in the first nine months of 2004. French officials have condemned attacks on members of the Jewish community. ''France is not an anti-Semitic country,'' Philippe Vinogradoff, France's consul general in Miami, told The Miami Herald on Thursday. ``France is doing a lot of efforts in its jurisdiction, in its education system, to eradicate definitively any trace of anti-Semitism.'' France's Jewish population has been variously estimated at between 500,000 and 700,000 and its Muslim population at five million to six million. But French Jews here say the community has been depleted by frequent departures, the majority to Israel. Jewish Agency figures show that almost 14,000 French Jews have resettled in Israel since 2001.
Vinogradoff said 12,000 French nationals are registered with his consulate, which covers Florida, the Bahamas, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and some Caribbean countries. Vinogradoff said it's impossible to tell how many are French Jews because the consulate is prohibited by French law from asking about religion or national origin. He noted that while the French expatriate community here has been growing steadily, there has been no sharp hike in numbers in the past five years.
But Elmaleh, who specializes in French Jewish immigration, said figures are much higher than those officially acknowledged -- with perhaps more than 50,000 French Jews moving or actively planning to move to Israel and more than 10,000 in South Florida.
Portions of some neighborhoods in north Miami-Dade have turned into pockets of French Jewish culture -- particularly in Surfside, Bal Harbour and Aventura where synagogues have seen significant additions of French Jews to congregations and new businesses cater to an expanding French-speaking clientele. ''I have seen an increase in my practice relating to wealthy French nationals who are also Jewish, exploring options to use the United States as a safe haven, anticipating problems relating to their Jewish heritage,'' Linda Osberg-Braun said. Other immigration attorneys like Roger Bernstein and David Berger also said they see more French Jewish clients. In their hearts, many of the French Jews arriving in South Florida feel they are refugees, and there's a movement to press the U.S. government for such status. A group has posted a petition on the Internet -- www.petitiononline.com/ID22206/petition.html -- urging the U.S. Congress to approve a refugee program for French Jews. Both Cohen and Kukurudz miss life in France, but they have no regrets about leaving. They did it for their children. ''So they can have a future,'' Cohen said.