Chabad Representative Awarded Prestigious Edmond Tenoudji Prize

by Rivka Chaya Berman - TOULOUSE, FRANCE

March 20, 2005

The last time the Jewish community in Toulouse, France made news, it was the frightening report of hooligans opening fire on a kosher butcher shop. Anti-Semitism hasn’t evaporated in southwestern France, but this winter found the Jews of Toulouse celebrating two joyful occasions: the city’s Chabad representative received a major education award and the area’s Jewish day school opened its brand new building.

It was a mostly secular Jewish crowd that had gathered in the conference room of France’s Jewish federation Paris headquarters last January. Though Toulouse is a seven-hour-plus drive to Paris, community members came by the carload to witness Chabad's representative to Toulouse receive the prestigious Edmond Tenoudji prize for excellence in Jewish education. No one was more surprised than the honoree himself, Rabbi Yosef Matusof.

There are no applications for the Tenoudji prize. No petitions. No campaigns. The federation, Fonds Social Juife Unifie (FSJU), is the government liaison for all Jewish programs seeking funding through the Ministry of Education. FSJU works to promote Jewish identity, preservation and pluralism by sponsoring Jewish film festivals, trips to Israel, and other cultural programs. It is notable when the FSJU honors orthodox rabbis – and exceptional when it picks someone from Chabad.

FSJU officials applauded Rabbi Matusof’s openness to Jews from all backgrounds and his 30 years of involvement to Jewish education. At the podium, Rabbi Matusof spent his moment in the spotlight deflecting the praise, thanking his wife Esther, and attributing his openness to the tenets of Chabad philosophy and his dedication to teaching to the leadership of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of blessed memory.

“The award was given for my father’s thirty years of hard work, I remember the hard times they went through to get to where they are today,” said Chani Zaltsman, the eldest of Matusof's eight children, who flew in from Brooklyn, NY, for the occasion. “But it was really an award for all of Lubavitch.”

At the ceremony, black and white photos flashed across the screen showing a young Rabbi Matusof in his hometown, a cloistered Jewish neighborhood in Morocco. Moments later a beaming politico, Toulouse Mayor Jean Luc Moudenc praised Rabbi Matusof’s diplomatic approach to smoothing relations between religious and secular Jews, Jews and gentiles, alike.

Mayor Moudenc knows Rabbi Matusof well. The two worked to secure some government funding for Chabad of Toulouse’s elementary school, Gan Rachi. Though orthodox in philosophy and practice, the Gan Rachi has a policy of being open to all Jews. For many of students, mostly from Sephardic homes, Gan Rachi is their only connection to Jewish life. Gan Rachi is named for the eminent medieval commentator Rabbi Solomon Bar Isaac known as Rashi, a native of Troyes, France.

Gan Rachi opened in 1978 with four students and has grown to 250 students from kindergarten through fifth grade. Rabbi Matusof’s award coincided with the inauguration of the new school campus. The multi-story brick building, glistening with a fresh coat of white paint, was a “twenty year dream,” said Rabbi Matusof. Gan Rachi previously occupied a church-owned building, which it was ousted from due to security concerns.

After the hors d’oeuvres hour, Rabbi Matusof and his wife shared their plans for the prize money. The school would receive a portion, most of the rest would be used to plump the coffers of Jeunesse Lubavitch-Beth Habad Toulouse synagogue and their camps: Gan Israel Pardes Mamash and Camp Pardes Hannah. Rabbi Matusof would not be holding any celebratory dinners in Toulouse to mark the Tenoudji honor. He had to get back to his life’s calling: educating the Jews, young and old, of Toulouse.

To view the interviews on the Fonds Social Juife Unifie (FSJU) website with Rabbi and Mrs. Matusof, go to:(Fonds Social Juife Unifie).

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