Reykjavik, Iceland: The Last European Capital Without a Rabbi Gets One

Chabad.org -
Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbi Avi Feldman shares a Chanukah message with Jews in Reykjavik, Iceland, Dec. 17, 2017. (Chabad.org)

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.

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.

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,”

‘It’s a Special Place’

General view at the harbour of Reykjavik. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

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.

“It’s a magical place,” says Mrs. 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 Arctic 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 [Mrs. Feldman] 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.

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 Shabbas and holiday events, classes and a Hebrew school, and envision a Jewish preschool in the near future as well.

‘A Unique Place to Live’

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.

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.”