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.
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.
In 2010 Iceland had about 100 Jews who call this North Atlantic island home but did not have synagogue, no rabbis, no Jewish community centre or organized structure. In fact, Judaism is not even one of Iceland’s state-recognized religions.
In 2011 United States, Rabbi Berel Pewzner of Chabad, the Brooklyn-based Hasidic group, 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 in a hall downtown on Erev Rosh Hashanah for services, too. The rabbi decided to return for Yom Kippur and came back again in 2012.
With a population of 350,000 people, having only between 100 and 250 Jews in the entire island nation, while rabbis sometimes served as chaplains at the U.S. Navy’s base in Keflavik (which closed in 2006), and Chabad rabbis have visited as part of the movement’s Roving Rabbi program, Rabbi Feldman was becoming the country’s first permanently stationed rabbi, establishing in 2018 the country’s first synagogue in Iceland’s 1,000-year documented history
Instead, rabbis flying in for Passover and other holidays has been the norm in Reykjavik. From 2011 until 2013, Iceland’s go-to drop-in rabbi was a young Chabad Jew named Berel Pewzner; after he accepted a posting as a shliach (emissary) at a Chabad House in the Cayman Islands, his brother, Naftoli, took his place for the next four years. In 2018 he was replaced by yet another Chabad rabbi, Avi Feldman, a 27-year-old from Crown Heights who flew in for the late-night service. (April marks the end of winter in Iceland; the sun remains above the horizon until a little after ten in the evening.)
Feldman, it turned out, was ready for the long run. Last summer, he, his wife Mushky and their three young children moved into a condominium on the west side of Reykjavik, within sight of the harbour. The rabbi became an Icelander.
He soon began hosting Shabbat dinners at his home as the new spiritual leader of Iceland’s small community of Jews, whose number is estimated at between 150 and 200.
Before the first 2019 seder, which took place on a Friday evening, the two older Feldman daughters, Chana and Batsheva, scampered outside the meeting room in masks depicting the Biblical plagues visited upon Egypt.
Last year they were just getting a sense of what it was like to be Jewish in Iceland, them being visitors, not genuinely part of the community, but now thy’re there for good in the hope to spend the rest of their lives there.
Many of the seder attendees were longstanding members of the community, second- and third-generation Icelanders who were for the very first time raising their glasses of grape juice — Kosher grape juice can’t be found in Iceland, so the Feldmans imported it along with matzo and other supplies — at the behest of a rabbi who actually lives in their country year-round.
The eclecticism of the seder’s attendees reflected a community just beginning to find its footing as a permanent feature in Iceland’s social and religious culture, in which a critical demographic fact is that, in the eyes of Iceland’s government, Jews are for all intents and purposes nonexistent. There are Icelanders who identify as Jews, but when they declare their “religious or life stance affiliation” in Iceland’s National Registry, as all Iceland’s citizens must, Judaism isn’t listed as a recognized religion. Most Icelandic Jews can only sigh and make the least bad choice: They check off the “unaffiliated” box.
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