Jewish Sweden

The Radical Jewish Traveler celebrates secularism at the 60th parallel.

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First stop: Stockholm, Sweden.

I came to Sweden to present at Stockholm's second-ever Limmud, the festival of Jewish learning launched in England 28 years ago. When I told people that I was going to experience Jewish Sweden, the most common reactions I heard were, "Isn't Sweden anti-Semitic?" and "Are there any Jews there?"

Let's be honest, Sweden is not known as a global hotspot of Jewish life. But there are about 20,000 Jews in Sweden--14,000 of whom live in Stockholm. Of those in Stockholm, about 4,500 are registered with the official unified Jewish community. Kosher slaughter has been illegal in Sweden since the 1930s, and circumcision is only legal if performed by a medical doctor.

With a small population and a government that likes to regulate religious life, one might think that Swedish Jewry lives a precarious existence. However, perhaps because of the government's past and present relationship to its Jews, Sweden's Jewish community is alive and well, defined by a vibrant and unique secularism.

Limmud, Sweden Style

Limmud Sweden is chaired by an incredibly energetic secular Finnish-Swedish Jewish woman named Marina Burstein. The conference, a 24-hour event, took place in Stockholm's official Jewish community building. It attracted more than 500 participants, which in a national community of 20,000 Jews is an incredible achievement.

Sessions ranged from close text studies of Bible, to workshops on Jewish popular culture. I offered a session on Chabad's arrival in Sweden.  It led to some heated conversations about the affect Chabad, and other Jewish organizations from abroad especially the Israeli government, have on Swedish Jewish life. 

Most surprising was the diversity of participants at Limmud, including Yiddish-speaking children of Holocaust survivors, who reminded me that Yiddish is a state-sponsored minority language in Sweden; Israeli émigrés, who came to Sweden long ago; and a gay non-Jewish Bosnian refugee, who heads a Swedish-Israeli friendship organization. Visibly lacking was any Orthodox Jewish participation, perhaps because of Limmud's secular, female leadership and its lack of Orthodox presenters.

Europe's Secular Yeshiva

Sweden's secularism is partly responsible for its highly successful Limmud. The country is also home to an important center of secular Jewish learning, Paideia: The European Institute for Jewish Studies in Sweden. The very name, from ancient Greek for the union of civilization, tradition, literature, and philosophy, shows how the institute reflects secular values. Barbara Spectre, an American-Israeli, founded Paideia because she believes that the key to inspired Jewish leadership is knowledge of Jewish sources, and that in Europe this training is best accomplished in a secular environment open to Jews and non-Jews.

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David Shneer

David Shneer is an associate professor of history and director of the Program in Jewish Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. His writing has appeared in numerous publications including the Huffington Post and the New York Times, and his most recent book is Through Soviet Jewish Eyes: Photography, War, and the Holocaust (Rutgers, 2010).