Reykjavik, Iceland: The Last European Capital Without a Rabbi Gets One
Rabbi Avi and Mushky Feldman hope to ignite a Jewish fire under the Northern Lights
By Dovid Margolin
You can kayak from New York to Iceland in 1,317 hours. Or fly Icelandair in five. At least that’s the tagline Iceland’s main airline plastered all over the Big Apple a few years ago as part of an ad campaign to attract New Yorkers to the land of the Northern Lights (it would be 1,417 or six, respectively, from Washington, D.C.) Along with most of the 2 million tourists who visit Iceland each year, Rabbi Avi and Mushky Feldman will be flying to the island country’s capital of Reykjavík later this year. But unlike the others, they and their two young daughters, Chana and Batsheva, are flying one-way in order to establish the Chabad-Lubavitch Jewish Center of Iceland.
Their appointment was announced at the Sunday-night gala banquet of the International Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch Women Emissaries (Kinus Hashluchos), which brought together 3,000 female Chabad representatives from 100 countries and their guests.
The Feldmans’ arrival will herald a new era for Iceland’s tiny Jewish community, and fulfill a number of firsts for Iceland’s long but sparse Jewish history. The Chabad Jewish Center will be Iceland’s first institutional Jewish presence; Rabbi Feldman will be the country’s first permanent rabbi; and aside from congregations formed by British and American troops during World War II, theirs will be the first synagogue in Iceland’s 1,000-plus years of history.
Until now, Reykjavík also had the distinction of being the last major European capital without a synagogue or a rabbi.
All this is not to say Iceland did not have a Jewish community until now. It did, and does, run for decades by volunteer Mike Levin, a Chicagoan who has lived in Iceland since 1986. Gathering for years on Jewish holidays and for various programs, they kept the flame of Jewish life alive – a pilot light protected from the cold Nordic air.
“We have always had a small group of Jews here,” Levin, who over the years has been identified by almost every news report on Jewish life in Iceland as the community’s “unofficial spokesman,” tells Chabad.org. He notes that “in the old days, we had a phone list, and we’d contact everyone who was interested in taking part and let them know. We did things for most major holidays, and at one point, we had a regular Shabbat service.”
But running a Jewish community on a volunteer basis comes with difficulties. The United States military had a base in Iceland where Jewish personnel were serviced from time to time by Jewish chaplains, but it closed in 2006. Iceland’s Jews got a boost when Rabbi Berel Pewzner – then a rabbinical student and today co-director of Chabad of the Cayman Islands – initially reached out to Levin in 2011 and as part of Chabad’s Roving Rabbis program arranged the first public Passover seder there, drawing 50 people. Pewzner arranged High Holiday services later that year, and in response to the warm reception they received from the community, rabbinical students have come a few times a year ever since. Over the years, through holiday programs and regular home visits, the Roving Rabbis managed to connect with many individual Jews living throughout Iceland.
Another resource Iceland’s Jews made use of was Chabad.org. The largest Jewish educational and inspirational website, Chabad.org provides thousands of articles, Jewish audio and video content, daily Torah classes, Shabbat candle-lighting times, Ask the Rabbi, and access to primary Jewish texts, is a resource that is regularly tapped into by millions of people around the world. It is very often a lifeline for isolated Jewish communities and individuals, Iceland being just one example.
But talk always returned to whether it would ever be feasible for a Chabad couple to set up shop.
“By now, it’s kind of necessary,” says Levin of the Feldman’s impending arrival. “If someone puts their full-time concentration on [Jewish life in Iceland], they can do a lot of things here.”
While there are around 100 Jews who have participated in community functions in one way or another, the year-round Jewish population, including university students and staff, is likely closer to 250. Along with the burgeoning tourist industry, which has exploded in the last decade and currently contributes to 10 percent of Iceland’s GDP, Feldman sees a bright future in Reykjavík.
“We want to focus on the Jewish needs of everyone who lives, works or travels to Iceland,” states the rabbi.
‘It’s a Special Place’
Not long after their marriage four years ago, the Feldmans began searching for a place to move as Chabad emissaries. Mushky was born and raised in Gothenburg, Sweden, where her parents, Rabbi Alexander and Leah Namdar, had been sent by the Rebbe – Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory – in 1991, founding the first Chabad outpost in Scandinavia. In the years since, two more Chabad centers have been opened in Sweden, as well as ones in Norway, Finland and Denmark (staffed by Mushky’s uncle and aunt). Motivated by the Rebbe’s call to connect Jews to their heritage wherever they may be, and with Mushky familiar with the Scandinavian climate and mindset, Iceland was on the Feldman’s radar.
“At the time, it still didn’t seem like Iceland was ripe enough,” Rabbi Feldman tells Chabad.org. Meanwhile, the couple spent a year working with Jewish students in Berlin, Germany, which Mushky describes as “an amazing experience.” But when it came time for them to move on, Iceland seemed to have even further evolved.
“On social media, I kept seeing people traveling to Iceland,” says Mushky. “It wasn’t scientific, but I told my husband that we should start looking at it more seriously.”
Indeed, Iceland is one of – if not the – fastest-growing tourist destinations in the world. Aside from regular flights from many North American and European cities, there are three direct flights a week from Israel. Rabbi Feldman reached out to Pewzner’s younger brother, Rabbi Naftoli Hertz Pewzner, who had built on his brother’s work in Iceland and for the past five years was flying to the country to organize and run High Holiday services, Chanukah parties, and Passover seders, staying in touch with local Jews via phone, Skype, and email throughout the year.
After extensively talking with the younger Pewzner, and doing some more research on their own, the Feldmans were on a flight to Reykjavík to celebrate Chanukah with the community and see the place firsthand.
“It’s a magical place,” says Mushky Feldman. Having grown up in a region so similar (she says that although she speaks Swedish, and Icelandic is said to be Old Swedish, she still can’t make much out language-wise), Reykjavík reminded her of home. Situated just below the Nordic circle, sunrise and sunset vary in the extremes, meaning Shabbat can begin as early as 3:15 p.m. or as late as 11:30 p.m., and in the summer end at 1:30 a.m. (Sunday morning). Gothenburg, while lower, is not that much different in that respect.
“Reykjavík is small, but it feels grand,” she adds. “It’s a capital city – you see that, and it’s very alive. You go to the center of town and there are people out enjoying themselves at all hours.”
“It’s helpful for them that Mushky is from Sweden,” says Sigal Har-Meshi, a native of Ashkelon, Israel, who first visited Iceland in 1986 (“I got here by mistake; I was looking for something different”), and has lived there for the last 14 years. “Scandinavians are very nice people, but it’s good that she understands them so well.”
Much has changed since Har-Meshi arrived, mostly driven by the tourism industry, which has spurred the opening of new restaurants and nightlife, and the construction of hotels. The uptick in activity doesn’t bother her.
“For me, it’s never too many tourists,” she says with a laugh. “There are more things to do; it’s more alive now.” As the number of travelers has grown, so has the commensurate number of Jews visiting. When they look for Jewish accommodations or kosher food, notes Har-Meshi, until now “we didn’t have a good answer.”
Many items must be imported to Iceland – contributing to the country’s high cost of living – and Rabbi Feldman has already started looking at various options for importing kosher staples from the United States or the United Kingdom.
In addition to the tourism, the local Jewish community has also grown over the years, if only slightly, and while her children are by now a bit older, Har-Meshi says she sees younger Jewish families who would benefit from having programs geared for their children. On their end, the Feldmans say they hope to start with regular Shabbat and holiday events, classes and a Hebrew school, and envision a Jewish preschool in the near future as well.
“A preschool is definitely something we hear a lot of young parents discussing and are excited about,” Mushky tells Chabad.org.
Iceland, says Levin, is a unique place to live. It’s a small country, but independent-minded and self-sufficient in many ways. With a population of 350,000 people, it boasts a Nobel laureate (Halldór Laxness was awarded a Nobel Prize in Literature in 1955) and produces more books in its own language per capita than any other country. It also offers the ability to be in the center of things and yet disconnected at the same time.
“Every Sunday, we go walking on a mountain,” he says, something he couldn’t dream of doing in Chicago. “You don’t have to go far out of Reykjavík to see untouched, pristine nature. For seven to eight months of the year, you have the Northern Lights. These are things that make you just look up and go ‘wow!’ You can’t experience that anywhere.”
Dr. Patrick Sulam, who has lived in Iceland since 2001, agrees, adding that the Jewish experience in Iceland is singular as well. Born and raised in Montpellier, France, Sulam grew up in a homogenous Sephardic Jewish community where most of the people he knew were Sephardic Jews of North African extraction. Iceland was the first place he ever tried latkes and where he got “the feeling of the Diaspora reunited in a mosaic manner, which is very rich.”
He appreciates what Chabad’s presence until now has brought, explaining that “it allowed me to see where I was in my Judaism. It gives me a frame of reference in a very non-invasive manner.”
The prospect of having regular Shabbat services, classes and a permanent Jewish home, says Sulam, is “very exciting.”
“We have families, children here, and this will help perpetuate the Jewish tradition,” he says. “I think it’s excellent for the local community and for the tourists. When people travel, they often get a new realization that even when you travel, you’re still a Jew.”
Rabbi Feldman points out that Levin has already built an ark for the Torah scroll they hope to bring to Reykjavík. When asked if he finds it interesting to be a founding father of a Jewish community in Europe, Levin says that by living in Iceland, he has gotten to experience things others normally wouldn’t. As a professional chef, for a number of years he worked and cooked for the American ambassador, meeting and feeding ambassadors from China, Russia and other countries, and he’s met the president of Iceland. “It’s a part of the experience of living here.”
As someone who grew up in a traditional Jewish environment, Sulam looks forward to being called up to the Torah by his Jewish name, Moshe, in Reykjavík, Iceland.
“It’s a direction,” he observes. “We’re definitely going in the right direction.”