Jewish Sweden

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

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I got to meet this year's class of 23 fellows, who together represent 18 countries from across Europe, plus Israel and Argentina. The countries with the largest representation are Russia and Ukraine, suggesting where Paideia thinks the next generation of secular Jewish leaders will come from.

Madame President

And in Sweden's Jewish community, secular, not religious, leaders run the show.  Lena Posner-Körösi is the first woman in the world to hold the top position of a country's official Jewish communal leadership, and she is one of the most vibrant, savvy Jewish leaders I have met.  She spoke with me nonstop (in perfect English, as does nearly every other Swede) with passion and excitement about what Swedish Jewry has to offer the world--a secular, cultural vision of Jewish life where learning and community are central, and religious worship is secondary.

A Different Kind of Religious Life

The secularism of Swedish Jewish life has allowed women to have full and equal access to its Jewish communal leadership, with women running the country?s official community, its secular yeshiva, and its largest annual gathering in Limmud. Its religious institutions, however, are still exclusively male. 

stockholm at night

Stockholm at night.

Rabbi Phil Spectre, married to Barbara of Paideia, served as Stockholm?s official rabbi, and Sweden's de facto chief rabbi, for a couple of years in the early 2000s. Before Spectre, from 1965 to 1998, Rabbi Morton Narrowe, a Philadelphia-born, Jewish Theological Seminary-trained Conservative rabbi, held the position. Rabbi Narrowe is proud of Sweden?s liberal traditions, and according to him, he is the only non-Orthodox rabbi to have functioned as a chief rabbi of any community in Europe. 

I asked him about the Swedish ban on kosher slaughter that forced the small number of kosher keeping Jews to import meat from that bastion of traditional Jewish life--Copenhagen. Instead of complaining about the government, he told me he is writing a teshuvah, an official Jewish legal responsum, that would meet the demands of Sweden's laws on the ethical slaughter of animals and push kosher slaughter in a new, more ethical direction. Perhaps this is how Sweden's Jewish secularism plays out even in the religious sphere.

Stockholm's community does have an Orthodox rabbi with a small congregation, and there are three Chabad rabbis, all foreign born and all male, in each of Sweden's three official Jewish communities. Chabad's presence in Sweden makes many Swedish Jews nervous. One source of that nervousness might be Chabad's popularity. On the Friday of my arrival, the local Chabad rabbi threw a swinging Shabbat dinner open to the public, which attracted more than 150 people, many of whom were young and foreign.

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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).