Parlez-vous ebreu asks Jewish mom

Or perhaps it was the oversized stuffed Easter bunnies that finally pushed Simone Joseph over the edge.

Whatever compelled her to institute a Jewish afterschool learning program at San Francisco's French American International School, Joseph said the "battle has been won."

The new program includes an exploration of different Jewish cultures, ranging from Ethiopian to Russian and Sephardic. Participating children recently hosted a mock Passover seder with French and Hebrew haggadot, and also conducted sing-alongs in Hebrew.

The traditional French education system is a double-edged sword, according to Joseph, a Tunisian-born and Paris-educated mother of two who lives in San Francisco. On the one hand, French schools offer an outstanding general education — heavy on international politics and history.

Conversely, she said, the French school system has a secular patina that, when scrutinized, doesn't hold up.

"There's no such thing as a secular education in the French public school system. You have priests and sisters conducting afterschool educational sessions and catechisms. The whole setup has a very Christian feel to it."

Christian favoritism has political ramifications, according to Joseph.

"If the French government could show that their country is home to so many different religions, maybe people like Jean-Marie Le Pen wouldn't exist," she said, referring to the leader of the National Front Party who has called the Holocaust a "minor detail in history."

"Living in France, we shouldn't take anything about Judaism for granted," Joseph said. "Believe me."

That bias toward Christianity is perpetuated in French schools in the United States, according to Joseph, who noted that a French school in California would have the same curriculum as a French school in Marseilles.

So when she enrolled her children in the French American school a couple of years ago, she was aware that they would be exposed to Christian traditions. In January of this year, however, Joseph decided to take action.

She approached Yves Rivaud, the director of afterschool programs, to see if she could institute a Jewish learning session once a week. Rivaud consented immediately.

The new program has generated considerable enthusiasm. Not a big surprise for Joseph, since she estimated that at least a quarter of the school's students have Jewish backgrounds.

Many of the kids, however, lack rudimentary knowledge of Jewish traditions, something that Joseph aims to overcome.

Attendance at her classes, held every Monday, is roughly 10 kids, ranging in age from 7 to 9. Joseph expects an increase when she begins hosting twice-weekly classes in the fall.

"I tell the kids that instead of waiting for Thanksgiving to give thanks for all the good things in life, that Jews can do it every week on the Sabbath. And it can just be a matter of uttering a few sentences, or cooking a great meal together as a family," she said.

"My son, for example, smells the challahs baking, and tells me that it smells like Shabbat is getting close."

The promise of a Shabbat dinner at the Joseph household actually enticed her students to complete a question-and-answer survey. Those who responded received an invitation.

Cooking lessons, to be held next year, are just one of several incentives that the energetic volunteer employs to bring children –and their parents — back into the Jewish fold.

"One thing I learned about America — there's always something Jewish going on," she said. "All you have to do is look for it."

Or create it, in Joseph's case.