How Cooperation With Islamic Scholars Inspired a Jewish Cultural College in Sweden

By Liam Hoare
eJewish Philanthropy

It took Abdulkader Habib, then-rector of the Islamic Kista Folkhögskola in Stockholm, to ask the question: If there were Christian and Islamic cultural colleges in Sweden, why was there no such Jewish institution? Of course, the Jewish community runs its own primary school and Paideia – the European Institute for Jewish Studies in Sweden – has since 2000 offered a rigorous and academic One-Year Jewish Studies Program with a focus on textual literacy. But in terms of popular education there was, as Habib rightly identified, this void. Out of his pertinent question grew not only Paideia’s new folkhögskola but also a vital interreligious, inter-communal relationship between Jewish and Muslim institutions.

Prevalent throughout Scandinavia and the Germanic world, folkbildning (adult education or popular education) in Sweden was born around 150 years ago, out of the desire of peasants and farmers to learn additional skills and undertake further training, at a time when universities were the preserve of the country’s elite. Free and accessible to all, this form of life-long learning is today a popular movement, one supported by the government and considered vital to strengthening democracy and promoting cohesion in Swedish society. The majority of institutions that provide this type of adult education are run by NGOs including trades unions, human rights organizations, and religious bodies including non-conformist churches.

Paideia’s folkhögskola, set up two years ago, is the first Jewish cultural college to be founded in Scandinavia and has the backing of the Sweden’s Judiska Centralrådet. Its core mission shares much in common with the values of Paideia itself, namely promoting the goal “of being literate in Jewish texts. If you want to be part of the Jewish conversation, you need to know the texts,” Noa Hermele, the rector of Paideia Cultural College, explained. Irrespective of one’s background, “if you can become literate in the texts, you can enter the conversation. This idea is translated into classes in Talmud, in Jewish philosophy, on Tanach. Languages, such as Hebrew and Yiddish, are also part of this literacy.” But the curriculum of the cultural college extends to the realm of non-academic subjects – creative writing, music, dance, art – and introductory classes to aspects of Judaism and Jewish life.

In the spirit of folkbildning, with an emphasis on openness, approachability, and cross-cultural leaning, Paideia’s folkhögskola has two intended audiences. On the one hand, in the same way that the primary audience for a college founded by a trade union is workers, it is looking to build up Jewish knowledge inside the Swedish Jewish community itself. Hermele thinks back to when he first attended the Paideia institute eighteen years ago. “I was born in Sweden to Jewish parents and grew up in the Jewish community. I’m quite active in the community, but before I attended Paideia, I definitely felt I didn’t have enough knowledge about Jewish philosophy, Jewish law, Jewish ideas to have an informed conversation what it means for me to live a Jewish life,” he said.

On the other hand, in-keeping with the foundational ideas behind both folkbildning and Paideia itself – whose program is “open to anyone with an interest and capability to add to Jewish culture and to the contribution of Jewish culture to a multifaceted European society” – its cultural college would like to bring Jewish education to those outside the Swedish Jewish community. “It goes back to the original concept of what a folkhögskola is: to make Jewish knowledge and knowledge about Judaism accessible to the general public,” Barbra Spectre, the founding director of Paideia, told me:

On a social and political level, the fact that Jewish existence has been able to demonstrate the notion of a minority citizenship, in the sense that you can both maintain your own identity and at the same time be part of a major society – something that is not well-established because very often minorities are seen to be silos of culture in and of themselves and unto themselves – and the notion of being able to open up and interact, not only teach Judaism but have people react to Judaism and be a part of the discourse, I think is a tremendously and increasingly important aspect of how a Jewish institute should function in the world today.

Spectre also sees an inherent value, not only in Jewish subjects, but how they are studied: the culture of debate and questioning. “There’s something about being able to add your own voice, and in a sense, differing from former interpretations, [shows that] there is something still incomplete. That notion of contribution by shaving away from the accepted – I think there’s something marvellous in that.” Hevruta very much informs the way Paideia’s One-Year Jewish Studies Program is instructed, with texts studied in pairs or small groups, interpreting the text together, conducting a dialogue with each other and with the text, its possible meanings a matter of debate.

It is that way of learning that first attracted the attention of Habib and the staff of Kista Folkhögskola. Seven years ago, as Hermele tells the story, the rector of the Islamic cultural college came to visit Paideia. “They wanted to develop studies in Islam and Arabic and see how we were doing it: open, pluralistic, and with an academic perspective,” he said. “We started to talk, they visited our institute, and we began a project together with the aim of strengthening minority citizenship in Sweden.” Any new folkhögskola is required to have a parent institution that, over the course of a three-year mentorship, raises and fosters it into being, and for Paideia, the Islamic Kista Folkhögskola has been that legal guardian for two years now.

The relationship between these Islamic and Jewish colleges also means that cross-cultural learning has been baked into Paideia’s statues. They have offered, to date, courses in the interpretation of the Torah and Quran, Arabic (taught by an instructor from Kista Folkhögskola), and Christian interpretations of the Jewish Bible. “We wouldn’t have had our folkhögskola without that interaction” with Abdulkader Habib and the Islamic cultural college, Spectre concluded. “I think it’s been eye-opening for everyone.”