Danish Jews ponder bleak future

Jewish community president Finn Schwarz, seen at his law office on Nov. 10, 2009, is trying to woo lapsed community members back into the fold. (Ben Harris)

COPENHAGEN, Denmark (JTA) — Forty years ago, when a few thousand Polish Jewish refugees arrived in Denmark fleeing an anti-Semitic campaign orchestrated by Poland’s Communist government, Danish Jews welcomed the newcomers with high hopes.

Previous waves of Jewish immigrants had rejuvenated a community marked by high rates of intermarriage, assimilation and emigration, and Denmark’s Jews held out the same hopes for these new immigrants.

But many of the Polish Jews were assimilated and saw little value in Jewish affiliation, and even those who joined the active Jewish community have seen their children — following the example of generations of Danish Jews before them — intermarry and drift from Jewish life in Denmark.

“Our children, even some of them who went to Jewish school, most of them are getting assimilated,” said Jacob Zylber, who arrived in Denmark four decades ago at age 23. “You cannot do much about it.”

Today, Denmark’s Jewish community of some 2,000 members is scarcely bigger than it was 40 years ago. With no great wave of Jewish immigrants on the horizon, Jewish leaders fear they may be witnessing the death throes of a community that dates back to the 17th century.

“It will be a very, very small community, and probably a more cultural, social, friendship club,” said Bent Lexner, the country’s chief rabbi, when asked what he foresees for Danish Jewry. “You never know what’s going on tomorrow. But as I see it now, there will be very few people who are identifying themselves as traditional Jews.”

Denmark’s Jewish leaders are trying to figure out how to sustain a community whose active young Jews decamp for better social and religious opportunities abroad and whose least committed melt into a society that has been, by European standards, remarkably welcoming of its Jewish minority.

“The answer is to try to hold on to the members that we can hold on, and try to get a lot of the potential members to join, which is very hard to do,” said Finn Schwarz, the president of Mosaiske Troessamfund, the community’s main umbrella group.

Schwarz recently took the unprecedented step of sending letters to 500 former community members urging them to return. Besides touting all the typical community offerings — the Jewish school, old-age home, the synagogue — he also noted the importance of fighting for Jewish rights, a point that these days has a particular potency in a country with a growing and restive Muslim minority.

Schwarz says he prefers to view the future of Danish Jewry with optimism. Other community leaders, however, are more accepting of the community’s declining numbers.

Lexner, the chief rabbi since 1996, caused a minor stir when a Danish newspaper quoted him as saying, in effect, that there was no law requiring Denmark to have a Jewish community. Lexner’s three children all live in Israel.

“I’m happy to see them there,” Lexner said. “I can see that my education has succeeded.”

The plight of Denmark’s Jews raises questions about the fate of scores of smaller European Jewish communities, many with distinguished histories that go back centuries. Though even stable Jewish communities in the United States face similar challenges of intermarriage and assimilation, the lack of a critical mass of members contributes to a self-reinforcing cycle: Each Jewish emigrant raises the incentive for others eager for a vibrant Jewish life to follow suit.

“That’s the fate of small communities,” said Sergio Della Pergola, one of the world’s foremost Jewish demographers and himself a European emigrant. Born in Italy, Della Pergola now lives in Israel.

“[Community life] is not feasible below a certain threshhold,” Della Pergola said. “And this is something that strangely enough people do not realize.”

About the only person who doesn’t fear for the community’s future is an outsider: Andrew Buckser, a professor of anthropology at Indiana’s Purdue University and the author of perhaps the most comprehensive academic study of Danish Jews, “After the Rescue.”

Buckser says Denmark’s Jews have worried about their community’s disappearance for a century, yet the community is still around. While he acknowledges the demographic challenges posed by emigration and assimilation, Buckser’s notion of what constitutes a Jewish community in the modern age leaves him confident that the predictions of Danish Jewry’s demise are overstated.

In “After the Rescue,” Buckser argues that Danish Jewry is not a community in the classical sense — a clearly defined group marked by a common set of beliefs and practices. Rather, Judaism in Denmark is more of a “toolbox,” a set of symbols from which individuals draw at will to construct their own identities. And that toolbox, he says, is as vital as ever.

The fear of communal demise in Denmark is “based on an assumption that assimilation and intermarriage will result in your community disappearing,” Buckser told JTA. “I’m not sure that’s a correct assumption.”

Though Buckser may be right, most Danish Jews are not thinking about Jewish symbolism when they ponder the fate of their community. They are thinking about their institutions — the synagogues and schools and nursing homes they fear will no longer have a constituency to support them.

“I’m not an optimist,” said Arne Melchior, a seventh-generation Dane whose father and brother both served as chief rabbis.

A former parliamentarian and government minister, Melchior is a proud Danish patriot who sings the praises not only of his country’s best known achievements — the virtual absence of poverty and unemployment — but even its more dubious ones, like its sky-high marginal tax rates.

But Melchior’s cheeriness about Denmark turns dark when he contemplates the future of the Jewish community. Some of the very things that make Denmark so attractive to Melchior are what threaten Jewish survival here, he acknowledges.

“We are very open towards the surrounding society,” Melchior said. “And the more contact you get, the more you will take over their customs. You are not an isolated group. You are a very open group.”


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