Iceland's Handful of Jews Keep Faith Alive

50 Gather on Rosh Hashanah in Shadow of Arctic Circle

rabbi berel pewzner

By Jenna Gottlieb

Published August 04, 2013, issue of August 09, 2013.

Iceland has no synagogue, no rabbis, no Jewish community center or organized structure. In fact, Judaism is not even one of Iceland’s state-recognized religions.

Still, Iceland has about 100 Jews who call this North Atlantic island home. And last year, roughly 50 of them gathered in a hall downtown on Erev Rosh Hashanah for services — a proportion of prayer attendance that rabbis in many other countries would give their left arms to achieve.

This coming Jewish New Year, traditional Ashkenazi food will be served once again. And once again, if they are lucky, attendees that night may see the aurora borealis, in all its green glory, dance across the sky, as they did on Erev Rosh Hashanah 5773.

A rabbi will also be on hand, something relatively new for Iceland. Though he remains based in the United States, Rabbi Berel Pewzner of Chabad, the Brooklyn-based Hasidic group, visits regularly and is into the third year of his tenure here.

The aurora borealis lights up Iceland’s sky on Rosh Hashanah.
bjorn ludviksson
The aurora borealis lights up Iceland’s sky on Rosh Hashanah.

It was in 2011 that Pewzner came to Iceland to help develop the small Jewish community. He presided that year over the first kosher Passover Seder ever held in Iceland, and more than 50 people attended that event, too. The rabbi decided to return for Yom Kippur and came back again in 2012.

“I’ve always been fascinated with Jewish life in remote and unique locations around the globe,” Pewzner told the Forward. “I have traveled to quite a number of countries, with the purpose of connecting with the Jewish communities living there…. So when I came across Iceland, a country that seemed to have few Jews, but a vibrant model of modern Jewish community, I was intrigued.”

Jews are relatively new to Iceland. The first observant Jew settled in Iceland in 1906, according to records. Fritz Heymann Nathan started one of Iceland’s most successful businesses at the time, Nathan & Olsen, a food distributor, after arriving from Denmark. He stayed for 11 years before returning there.

It wasn’t until 1940 that the first Jewish congregation was established on Iceland’s soil, when Jewish soldiers from Britain were stationed there. The arrival of American forces in 1941 brought more Jews to the country, with roughly 2,000 Jewish soldiers based in Iceland by the end of World War II.

Jewish numbers fluctuated over the decades until the United States Army left Iceland in 2006.

Prior to that, Iceland’s government had a troubled history with Jews. In the 1930s, when Jews were trying to flee Germany, and Iceland was still affiliated with Denmark — though formally sovereign — the government refused to open its doors, following Denmark’s lead. Furthermore, most of the small number of Jews who were already on its shores were deported.

Today, Iceland’s Jewish community comes from around the world. There are no native Icelandic Jews to speak of. The Jews who reside in Iceland came, at least initially, to study, to work or because of marriage to an Icelander.



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