I had never harbored any ambitions of becoming an international smuggler until one cloud-free summer evening in 1991.
I grew up in Sweden, became religious in my teens and immigrated to Israel in 1978. I was living in Ra’anana and working as an engineer at Motorola Israel when Jakob, a new immigrant from Sweden, came to inquire about job opportunities in Israel. He soon turned to his main concern.
“Do you happen to know anyone who would be interested in receiving a shul from Sweden, free of charge? I mean the entire contents, not the rented premises,” he said.
“What a coincidence!” I replied. I was on the building committee of the congregation Lechu Neranena, and we had just started building a synagogue. So yes, we were interested. “But from where did you get a synagogue to give away?” I asked.
Jakob explained that his father used to be the “all-in-one” — cantor, Torah reader and kosher slaughterer — in the small Jewish community of Kristianstad, in southern Sweden. He was 77 years old and wanted to make aliyah, but the synagogue’s last functioning board had appointed him to find the synagogue a new home, as it hadn’t been used for several years.
I was familiar with the synagogue from my childhood years in Sweden. The furniture dated from the 1960s and comprised beautiful Swedish oak benches, seating about 60 people, with a matching bimah and an Aron Kodesh, or a Torah cabinet — all with a matte lacquer finish accentuating the wooden texture.
Upon closer investigation I discovered that Israeli customs regulations would not exempt the contents of a synagogue from import duties, since back then the European Free Trade Association, to which Sweden used to belong, did not have a free-trade agreement with Israel. The benches would fall under the general category of “used furniture,” which carried a high import levy. In addition, the Israeli customs office calculated the levy on a so-called “landed cost,” which equaled 110% of the total value, including transport costs. We’d have to pay $12,000 in total, while new manufactured synagogue furniture would cost around $20,000. Considering the fact that the furniture had been used for 30 years, this was not a good metziyeh, no bargain.
I asked Bosse, a friend in Sweden, to help disassemble the synagogue. He decided to dismantle even the exquisite entrance door, which came complete with an integral steel scraper that pushed away the snow when opening it.
With the help of a few workers, Bosse and his father put the furniture in temporary storage in the port of Helsingborg, 70 miles west of Kristianstad, while I tried to figure out an affordable way to get the synagogue to Israel.
Suddenly I realized that Kristianstad is just across the straits from Copenhagen. One of the synagogue members was tasked with finding out what duty would apply if the synagogue were to be imported from Denmark instead of from Sweden. Denmark was a member of the European Economic Community, which had a free-trade treaty with Israel. This meant that we wouldn’t have to pay any duty to import the synagogue from Denmark.