Fighting for a Brighter Future: French YU Students
By: Ilan Swartz-Brownstein
It was September 2009, two weeks until Aaron Zohar was supposed to start ninth grade in his hometown of Lyon, France. His father, Patrick, walked into his room one afternoon and stood in the doorway with a phone in his hand. He said “Aaron, your uncle from America is on the phone. He wants to know if you want to go to America for high school.” As if Zohar had been expecting this moment, he immediately responded, “Yes!” In just a week, Zohar got on a plane to live at his cousin’s house in Long Island, New York. He would soon be starting ninth grade in Hewlett Public High School in Woodmere.
The first time Zohar set foot in America was only a couple of weeks before this phone call, for his cousin Alec’s bar mitzvah. The bar mitzvah was during the summer, and Zohar stayed at his cousin’s house the following month before heading back to France. When Zohar returned to France, Alec started to really miss him. So, several days later, Alec’s father called and offered to have Zohar stay with them and attend high school in America. Within a week’s notice, on September 7, 2009, Zohar left his friends, parents, and three siblings to get an American education. He gave up his life in France and everything he had become accustomed to for the past fifteen years.
From an early age, Zohar realized that he didn’t want to settle for the path set up for him in France. Even though some of his siblings had good jobs there, he recognized how much more difficult it is to succeed in France. “If you’re average, you won’t make it, you won’t go anywhere.” Zohar says. Zohar knew that the best path to success was in America, where even an average person can succeed. For him, because France felt like a dead end, the choice was easy. “I didn’t want to stay in France. I had no future there.”
The educational elitism of France’s college system further complicates its path to success. A year of college in France only costs around $500, so there are an incredibly large number of applicants. But the colleges run on a lottery system, making it difficult to get accepted. “It’s terrible, you’re either really good and you get a really good job…or you end up lost” admits Zohar. Zohar wanted to break away from the slim possibility of achievement in France and set himself up on a path where he could truly succeed.
In addition to Zohar’s feelings about being trapped in a country where success was capped, anti-Semitism was a scary reality in France during Zohar’s childhood. The Jewish community was targeted by the rising population of extremist Muslims. Zohar explains that over the recent years it has been “getting worse and worse; the Jews all want to leave. So, many of my friends made Aliyah this year.”
Zohar remembers how he didn’t feel truly safe in France. “If you’re alone, it’s scary and dangerous; the subway, anywhere.” Out of fear of being attacked, French Jews often take off their yarmulkes in public. However, Jews are often targeted even if they aren’t wearing any sign that they are Jewish. “They know how to pick out what French Jews look like, so they can attack.” This summer, in response to the war in Israel, a synagogue was violently attacked by a large Muslim mob chanting “death to Jews.” As Zohar sees it, “Whenever it’s bad in Israel, it’s really bad in France.”
Leaving his family and friends behind wasn’t easy for Zohar. Zohar remembers how he decided to leave France before even giving himself the chance to think about what he would be leaving behind. “If I would have thought about my friends or family, I would have never left.” So with the desire to maximize his potential for success and live in a country more comfortable for Jews, Zohar left his life in France for the American Dream. “I was very excited to discover a new country, [and] new school” says Zohar.
Zohar’s first of week of high school in America was tough. He didn’t speak any English, and his cousin Alec, with whom Zohar was staying, didn’t know any French. Luckily, Alec’s mother knew some French. But Zohar was committed to learning English no matter how difficult it would be for him. “We spoke in English so I could get better,” remembers Zohar.
Despite learning English during the school day, Zohar admits, “My cousin was the first one to help me. He taught me English, pretty much.” When they came home from school every day, Zohar and Alec would talk to each other in English, watch English movies, and play games with English words. Eventually Zohar started to really pick up the language. “He would tell me, ‘No, this is how you say it,’” Zohar remembers. And after a year, Zohar was able to fully understand English.
Because Alec was two years younger than Zohar, Zohar often didn’t have anyone to advocate for him or help him out during the school day. Zohar remembers the very first day of high school. He accidentally walked in late in the middle of gym class. The teacher asked for his name and Zohar replied, “Ah-ha-rohn” with the French pronunciation, but the teacher didn’t understand him. So Zohar tried again, forcing his mouth to say his name with an American accent, but the teacher still couldn’t decipher it. “He didn’t understand it—I didn’t even know how to say it!” Zohar recalls.
Even basic things, like taking attendance, Zohar found challenging at first. After class he would go up to his teacher privately to tell them that he was there, because he didn’t really know how to say it during class, and was scared to misspeak in front of his classmates. “Even just to ask to go to the bathroom, I didn’t know what to say. It was so hard.”
With time, Zohar’s English started to significantly improve. “For the first and second years I used to have three hours a day of English.” In his third year, he only had one hour of English a day, and in his senior year of high school, he wasn’t taking any special English classes.
Despite being a public school, the majority of Hewlett Public High School’s population was Jewish. At the time, Zohar felt “it was 90% Jewish.” Being at a school with such a large Jewish population, Zohar didn’t have classes on most Jewish holidays. As he remembers it, “I was shocked. I was in public school, but I was getting all the holidays off.”
American food was also a difficult adjustment for Zohar. He remembers how his aunt didn’t make any of the French foods he was used to. Instead, “She made pasta, chicken wings, potatoes. It was so different; at first I couldn’t eat, but after a year or two I got used to it.”
The first year was especially hard for Zohar. “I was depressed my first year,” he says. “It was terrible for me, I wasn’t sure if I should have gone back.” He kept thinking about his friends and his family. To keep himself from questioning his decision, he would say to himself, “I have to stay, I have to stay.” With persistence, Zohar overcame every struggle that he encountered. As he puts it, “little by little, you overcome it.”
After being in America for seven years, Zohar has come to truly love it. “What I love about America is that people are very nice and always say hello to each other. In France, if you ask a question in the street to someone, they are mean, they are not open. Here, you can ask anything; they are always happy.”
Now, Zohar is in his last year of YU, in the Mechina program. “YU is the best,” he states proudly. In France, there is nothing like it. For Zohar to have a college which also has a Jewish curriculum is the best of both worlds. “You can do your business and stay with Torah!” exclaims Zohar.
The plethora of French and other international students at YU have increased Zohar’s positive experience. “Most of my friends are international,” Zohar explains. Even though he is friendly with some Americans, he feels he is able to connect better with other international students than with American students. Zohar feels that the international students, no matter where they are from, share a strong chemistry. “We are on the same side—we are home sick,” explains Zohar. “We don’t speak English like Americans, so we understand each other better.”
Zohar goes back home to France once or twice a year for around two weeks at a time— only a few weeks out of the whole year—to see his family and friends. “Because it’s been seven years, I’m used to it,” admits Zohar. When he goes back, Zohar doesn’t feel the same connection to France as he used to. “It’s like I’m home, but not home.”
When in America, Zohar is constantly thinking about his friends and family in France. “Yeah, I miss them so much,” he says. In order to keep in touch, Zohar video chats, FaceTimes, and Facebook Messages his friends and family at least once a week. It’s very important to Zohar to stay connected. As he puts it, “My best friends are from France. They are my true friends.”
After he graduates, Zohar plans on continuing on his American journey to success. “Hopefully I’m going to find a job, and then start paying back the loans, [and] get married.” However, because Zohar isn’t from America, it can be harder for him to find work. That’s why he’s majoring in accounting. Although he doesn’t love it, he believes it will help him get a job after he graduates. “It’s exciting and it’s scary. Since I’m an international student, it’s harder to find a job or get a visa; it’s a pretty hard process. G-d willing, it will work out.”