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.
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So, what’s it like to live in Iceland as a Jew today? Most of the Jews who reside in Iceland come from secular backgrounds, and the community’s identity does not lie in religion. Indeed, most of the Jews here today are in interfaith marriages. Many in the community, however, are interested in retaining a connection to their Jewish heritage.

“Overall my experience living here as a foreigner has been great,” Jovana Alkalaj said. “Being from Serbia and being Jewish, both somewhat controversial, have never been an issue for anyone I have met [in Iceland].”

But Alkalaj’s connection to the community is a cultural one.

“Jews in Serbia have been through a lot, including my late grandparents, and I do identify with them and what they went through,” she said. “I am a member of the Jewish community in Serbia, as well, and have taken a year’s worth of Hebrew classes. Being Jewish is more of a personal statement in honor of my family and what they went through, and a sign of identification with other people whose families suffered the same way.”

Alkalaj, who moved to Iceland in 2010, is married to an Icelander.

Roughly 80% of Iceland’s residents are members of the Lutheran Church, which is state funded, as are several smaller religious communities that have chosen to register with the government. So far, the Jewish community has chosen not to do so.

One woman who came to Iceland from America to live with her Icelandic husband, said such demographics take their toll. She and her husband have one child, who has been baptized.

“There have been some sacrifices on my part, but that is something that I had to accept when I moved to Iceland,” said the woman, who spoke only on condition of anonymity to retain her privacy. “In many ways I did lose my Jewish identity. But it was a choice.”

Others in the community do practice their Judaism, though not in a traditional sense, to keep tradition alive.

Julian Burgos, a marine biologist who grew up in Ecuador, considers himself a secular humanistic Jew. “But I do practice,” said Burgos, who has lived here for four years with his wife, a nonpracticing Catholic. “At home we celebrate the Sabbath and the holidays, albeit from a humanistic, nontheistic point of view…. The Jewish people have always also included the apikorsim, those who do not accept the dominant rabbinic religion, and I guess I am one of those.”

Like other community members, Burgos says he has never experienced anti-Semitism in Iceland. Israel, and the politics that come with it, however, is a very different issue. Politically, many Icelanders are quick to criticize the Israeli government, and Iceland’s previous government came out strongly against Israel at times.


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