A record number of French Jews flocked to "Israel opportunities" fairs throughout France this week, as Israeli officials anticipate an unprecedented wave of French aliyah to only increase in 2015.
Some 8,000 people, mostly between the ages of 16 and 35, have visited the "Orient-a-Sion" fairs taking place in Paris, Lyon and Marseilles – well over 1% of the entire French Jewish community.
The fairs, which were jointly organized by The Jewish Agency for Israel and the Ministry of Aliyah and Immigrant Absorption, aim to expose French Jews to the range of opportunities available to them in Israel, as well as to "Israel experience" programs offered by Masa Israel Journey, a joint initiative of The Jewish Agency and the Government of Israel.
Dozens of representatives from Israeli organizations and government bodies, including the mayors of several Israeli cities, presented families in attendance with housing options, employment opportunities, and educational programs available to them in Israel.
"We have been doing this for years, and we could not believe our eyes," said Daniel Benhaim, head of the Jewish Agency delegation in France. "By 10 a.m., there was a line around the block."
Echoing statements by other Israeli officials – including Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky – Benhaim expressed confidence that the number of Jews leaving France for Israel would break last year's record figure of more than 7,200. Those numbers were more than double the previous year (3,400) and triple the number seen in 2012 (1,900).
In Paris alone, some 6,000 people participated in the event, three times the 2,000 who attended last year.
At more than half a million, France's Jewish community is the largest in Europe and third largest in the world, after Israel and the United States.
But French Jews, particularly in Paris, have been severely shaken by last month's deadly terror rampage which left 17 people dead – four of them in an assault on a Jewish supermarket in the capital.
Even prior to the attacks in January The Jewish Agency had predicted that 10,000 people would make aliyah in 2015, as anti-Semitism reached unbearable levels, with assaults, vandalism and incitement all on the rise. Those estimates are now being revised upward as calls to The Jewish Agency's Paris offices have tripled in recent weeks.
According to the Jewish Agency, some 1,700 young French Jews are expected to participate in Masa programs to Israel this year.
"There is a major shift occurring in France, and we expect more than 10-15,000 immigrants this year. What we saw today confirms that," said Benhaim.
But Jewish Agency Director-General Alan Hoffmann – who attended the event along with a solidarity mission of North American Jewish leaders – emphasized that the fact that French Jews were opting specifically for Israel was significant.
"While growing economic unrest and a frightening recent wave of anti-Semitism in France are certainly push factors for emigration, France is a free, Western country, and the choice of Israel over other options is a function of intrinsic connectedness, rather than one of necessity," Hoffmann noted.
"The presence of a strong Jewish Agency delegation engaged in Israel experience programming from high-school onward makes the choice of Israel organic for this community. Israel is a regular part of their lives," she added.