The Story Behind Iceland’s Only Rabbi
Brooklyn native Avi Feldman is hoping to revive a population that, in official terms, does not legally exist.
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because Reykjavík was the only European capital without a permanent rabbi … until now.
Estimates of Iceland’s Jewish population range from zero to a couple hundred. The logic behind the exactness of zero is straightforward: Officially and legally, the government of Iceland doesn’t recognize Judaism as a religion. So, in the census tally, zero gets the final word.
Rabbi Avi Feldman, a tall, lanky 27-year-old with a tawny beard who hails from Crown Heights, Brooklyn, has made it his mission to raise the tally. It’s part of the fight against rising anti-Semitism, which flared up again last weekend at a California synagogue shooting, killing one and injuring several others on the final day of Passover. Feldman moved to Iceland late last year along with his wife, Mushky, and their three young daughters, and took up residence in a medium-size condo a block from Reykjavík Harbor.
Feldman’s move is historic because, since World War II, Iceland has not had a rabbi. Reykjavík was the only European capital to lack a permanent rabbi. Passover and the High Holidays, to the extent that they were celebrated at all here, were presided over by visiting rabbis.
The conundrum of Icelandic Judaism — that self-identified Jews have no official recognition — stems from Iceland’s governmental policy of entering every child born in the country, and every new permanent resident, into what’s known as the National Registry. It’s a comprehensive database of essential demographic information such as place of birth, marital or cohabitation status, legal domicile — and, as the registry phrase goes, “religious or life stance affiliation.”
Describing the challenges that lay ahead, Feldman keeps returning to the word “infrastructure.” Iceland has never had a synagogue.
For a religion or life stance to appear on the registry requires overcoming bureaucratic and legal obstacles, but even relatively small, obscure affiliations have cleared the hurdles. Examples include Ásatrú (also known as heathenism, which had 3,600 followers in 2017) and the Icelandic Ethical Humanist Association (with 536 followers). Judaism, however, is not on the list. Most Icelanders who identify as Jews check “unaffiliated,” and there’s no write-in option.
Feldman’s journey to Reykjavík, and toward gaining Judaism official recognition, began in Berlin. The Feldmans spent two years there mentoring visiting Jewish students from around the world. “In Berlin, we both realized that we found the work fulfilling, that we wanted to take on a similar challenge elsewhere,” Mushky says.
Iceland was their first choice, and it helped that Mushky grew up in Sweden, another Scandinavian country with a tiny Jewish population (but with more than one permanent rabbi, among them Mushky’s father).
Avi and Mushky met in New York City when Avi was studying to be a rabbi and Mushky was teaching in an Orthodox Jewish school. Both are members of Chabad, an Orthodox movement distinguished from the Orthodox norm in its emphasis on outreach. Chabad runs a Roving Rabbi program that sends yeshiva students abroad to gain experience in mingling. Some Roving Rabbis go on to become Chabad emissaries (shluchim). They establish Chabad Houses in far-flung cities like Bratislava, Cancún and Kathmandu — home to one of the better-known Chabad Houses.
After a grueling application process, including interviews at Chabad’s headquarters in Crown Heights, Avi and Mushky got the good news: Reykjavík would be their new home.
Chabad shluchim commit for life to their assigned posts. So the posting meant the Feldmans would spend the rest of their lives in a country they’d only visited briefly. Also, the young couple would be starting practically from scratch in bringing a permanent Jewish presence to Reykjavík. Describing the challenges that lay ahead, Feldman keeps returning to the word “infrastructure.” Iceland has never had a synagogue. “We’re building both a community as well as the infrastructure to support a community and a sense of permanent, tangible togetherness,” he says.
Infrastructure not just for the 100 or so year-round Icelandic Jews but also all the Jewish backpackers and study-abroad students flocking to a country enjoying zooming popularity as a tourist destination. The Feldmans advertised the Passover Seder prominently on a newly minted Jewish Iceland website.
On Thursday evening before the historic Seder, Feldman was in nonstop motion, issuing instructions to the volunteers, among them a young woman, Chaya Klein, whose parents are Chabad shluchim in Memphis, Tennessee (“for the first few years, our garage was our Chabad House”). Feldman, navigating the logistics of an official Reykjavík Seder for the first time, was harried and absentminded — he has a knack for projecting irrepressible high spirits while at the same time seeming impossibly overburdened — and led the volunteers carrying boxes of imported kosher grape juice to his car before remembering that the car wasn’t there. It was a block closer to the water.
At the Seder, I sat next to Páll Arnór Pálsson, the honorary consul of Israel in Iceland and an attorney who’s helping Feldman clear the legal hurdles to putting Judaism on the National Registry. When I asked why Icelandic Jews hadn’t sought official status until now, Pálsson gave two reasons. One was Iceland’s reputation for unfriendliness toward Israel — as he put it, many Jewish Icelanders want to keep a low profile.
Of all places, that enmity has played out lately in Eurovision, the international music competition, which this year will be in Tel Aviv. Iceland chose tech-goth band Hatari, and band members are planning an onstage political statement against Israel’s government. Singer and DJ Paul Oscar, Iceland’s Eurovision pick in 1997, has called for the country to boycott Eurovision this year. He went on to say (in a widely derided remark) that “Jews learned nothing from the Holocaust. Instead, they have taken up the exact same policy of their worst enemy.”
According to Pálsson, though, the main obstacle to getting on the registry is that the loose-knit community of Jews in and around Reykjavík has lacked a spiritual leader who stayed around long enough, as Feldman plans to do, to see the registration process through to completion. Both Feldman and Pálsson predict that the change will happen soon, likely within the next year.
As for the new spiritual leader, he seemed very much at home at the front of the meeting room of the CenterHotel Plaza in downtown Reykjavík, guiding an ad hoc congregation of about 100 through the Passover service. Some of the attendees were second-generation Icelanders, others expats from Israel or New York, and still others Jewish tourists whose vacations happened to coincide with the holiday that commemorates the exodus of the Jews from Egypt.
Feldman, a rapid-fire speaker, drew out the prelude to the service by telling jokes and recounting anecdotes from his childhood, a necessity for serving as rabbi in such latitudes: The service itself couldn’t begin until nightfall. Finally, at a quarter after 10, the sun was declared to have officially dropped below the horizon, and the celebration began.
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