La Grande Synagogue de Paris, which due to its location on Rue de la Victoire is also known as La Victoire Synagogue, is the largest synagogue in France. France is itself the nation with the biggest Jewish population in Europe. But it isn’t just its size that makes La Victoire Synagogue important. France is a country where there is a strict division—and has been an often fractious relationship—between religion and the state. Of course the nation has also had a mixed record, to put it mildly, with regard to its Jewish citizens.
Yet in the eyes of the French state, which is officially blind to religion, La Victoire Synagogue has come to be seen as the recognized, official headquarters of French Jewry. It is here not only that one finds the Jewish community’s Chief Rabbi, but also where representatives of the French government pay their respects to and interact with the Jewish community. So despite its size and grandeur, what is most meaningful about the synagogue is what not what it is, but rather what it represents.
La Victoire Synagogue got off to a grand start, being designed by the Chief Architect of Paris, Alfred-Philibert Aldrophe, in 1874. It was a rather major project. The legendary Rothschild banking family financed its construction, and the building of a La Grande Synagogue represented the ascension of a portion of French Jews into the upper echelons of Parisian socioeconomic and cultural life in fin-de-siècle France. These were the kind of wealthy Jewish families like the Ephrussi family described by Edmund de Waal in “The Hare with the Amber Eyes.”
It wasn’t just the financiers and architect of the synagogue that were fancy; the site was auspicious too. La Grande Synagogue was built on the site of a grand townhouse, known in French as an hôtel particulier, which had links to the highest of French society. Having himself lived on the same road a few years before, none other than Napoléon Bonaparte gave the property as a wedding present to his brother Louis and sister-in-law Hortense in 1802. In fact the street itself, Rue de la Victoire, was named for Napoléon’s victorious Italian campaigns in the French Revolutionary Wars of 1796-97. No wonder he liked it.
Despite this prestigious history, however, by the mid- to late-19th century, when the shul was being built, the area was a little déclassé. In fact, according to the synagogue’s website, the street was distinguished by its gloomy and disheveled appearance. It was commonly said to be as “sad as Victory.” Yet although it was no longer apparently fit for a king, or rather for an Emperor and his brother, it was still a desirable address. And with the construction of their beautiful new synagogue, Parisian Jews endowed the somewhat depressed corner of northwestern Paris with a little renewed animation. Suddenly it was place where people met, gossiped, married and prayed.
In keeping with the site’s history of closeness to power and authority, the Grand Synagogue of Paris has served as the official seat of both the Chief Rabbi of Paris and the Chief Rabbi of France since opening to the public in 1875. As such, the synagogue is the traditional site where Judaism meets the French Republic. And in France, a country with a strict official separation between church and state, where religion is banned from the public sphere of the republic, this is important. Because of its prominent position, the Grand Synagogue is where the great and the good of the French Republic go for services to mark the High Holy Days or for official ceremonies.
The synagogue lives up to its grand name. It’s an imposing yet beautiful building. Its façade is 36 meters high, while its nave is more than 28 meters tall and 44 meters long. In all, the shul can seat 1410 worshippers. La Victoire is an ornate Romanesque synagogue, embellished with Byzantine flourishes Its principal entrance was to open on to what is today known as rue des Châteaudun but the Empress Eugénie, wife of Napoleon III, considered it inappropriate to erect a Jewish monument between the two neighboring churches, the Church of the Trinity and Notre Dame de Lorette. Yet as construction of the Grand Synagogue took place with funds provided both by the Jewish community and the city of Paris, the official, municipal sanctioning of a synagogue signified the social acceptance of Judaism in Paris, which was by then home to approximately 20,000 Jews. The fact that Jews in Paris could build such a temple also displayed the community’s vitality. In the decade after completion of La Grande Synagogue the city’s Jews would build synagogues in other parts of Paris, for instance at Buffault and les Tournelles.
La Victoire Synagogue is not just the de jure or official place where the French Republic and its Jewish citizens meet. It has also been a site at which French Jews have met with some of the less glorious episodes of French history, where members of the community have been treated like second-class citizens, or worse. For almost 150 years, the synagogue has been linked to many of the biggest moments in French history that affected the nation’s Jewish community, including the Dreyfus Affair, the First World War, World War II and the Holocaust, the creation of the State of Israel, and the settling in France of Jews from former French colonies like Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco.
It has stood through and been affected by all of these events. La Victoire was where Alfred Dreyfus, the falsely accused French army captain whose anti-Semitic case led a covering journalist, Theodor Herzl, to created the Zionist movement, married. And, as if the building had been destined to share the tragic plight of many of its congregants, the Grand Synagogue itself went through its share of trials during the Nazi occupation of Paris. In 1941, it was the site of bomb explosion. In 1942, its tabernacle was desecrated. And the Gestapo conducted identity checks and a round up at the synagogue at the end of Rosh Hashanah in 1943. Now, each year around the Jewish New Year, La Grande Synagogue hosts a ceremony of remembrance for the Jews deported from France by Germans and their zealous French collaborators to their murder at the Nazis’ death camps in Eastern Europe. The event is televised on national television in France, which to this day struggles to accept its complicity in the Holocaust. But the place that France officially confronts this chapter of its recent past is often La Victoire Synagogue.
But in addition to its storied history and ceremonial role, Paris’ premier synagogue is still the site of Jewish religious and communal activities throughout the year. It offers classes on Talmud and Jewish thought, a Beth Midrash (or study hall) for women, a Talmud Torah for male students, Friday night dinners and student Shabbatons, concerts, conferences, marriages, circumcisions, bar and bat mitzvahs…in short, most everything associated with Jewish religious life. Music plays an important part at La Victoire, and is a feature of most events. Although Sephardi Jews now account for the majority of members of the Jewish community in France, in line with its heritage the Grand Synagogue follows the traditional liturgy of Ashkenazi rites. The Grand Synagogue follows a specifically Alsatian rite, as many of France’s oldest Jewish families hail from the Alsace-Lorraine region around Strasbourg at the border with Germany.
La Grande Synagogue de Paris is a shul with a long, often grand yet sometimes tragic, history. Through its location on Rue de la Victoire, it is where wealthy French Jews joined other members of high society; the site itself was once owned by Napoleon. And today, the synagogue serves as the home of France’s Chief Rabbi, and the place where representatives of the French state, including presidents, meet French Jews. But despite all of its grandness, as the Hebrew inscription on the entrance to the synagogue states, “This is none other than the House of God, the very gateway to Heaven."