The Danish rabbi
THE Rabbi in Denmark SPEAKS OUT
The Jewish Community in Denmark – is one of the oldest in Northern Europe. The first time that Jews living in Denmark are mentioned date back to the seventeenth century.
Before World War II in Denmark, there were about eight thousand Jews.
Now nobody knows the number.
To establish the exact number is impossible, because the Danish passports do not indicate religious affiliation and nationality. However, I can say that officially the Jewish community in Denmark has 2200 people. Ninety percent of them live in Copenhagen. Outside Copenhagen ‘s not even a single synagogue.
The members of the Jewish community pay community a tax covering expenses caused by running a Jewish day-school, a number of graveyards, an old age home etc.
The Jewish community in Denmark represented a very wide spectrum Jews ranging from the extreme right-wing ultra-Orthodox to non-religious leftist. This Unity-congregation have both positive and negative aspects. Formally, the community is an Orthodox one with a synagogue, a mikveh, a rabbi. However, not everyone of the community keep kosher and live an Orthodox life – the vat majority don’t. Some of the members are for example, Jewish girls from the USA, who were brought up in the spirit of Reform Judaism. Here they marry non-Jewish Danes. They don’t feel any connection with Judaism. They do not even really understand what a synagogue is. However, if you want to embrace all, there will always be those who say that your community is too orthodox or that your community is too liberal.
For the last 350 years, a member of the Jewish community in Denmark would be only halachic Jews. Today, it is a question whether we can consider as members of the community non-Jewish spouses of Jews or those who having only a Jewish father and not a Jewish mother. But acceptance of people in the community – this is only our prerogative – the authorities give us complete freedom to decide.
The Jews in Denmark enjoy equal civil rights with non-Jewish citizens. They become members of Parliament, ministers etc. The Jewish community has traditionally enjoyed very high esteem by the authorities. For example, a few years ago the Minister of Justice called me early one morning and started asking questions about the rules of kosher slaughtering (schite), because on the very same date the Parliament had scheduled a debate on the laws relating to Halal (Islamic food prescriptions). Recently, there have been very strong anti-Muslim sentiments, especially among right-wing party opposed to Halal, circumcision and so on. At the same time Danish politicians do not intend these laws to interfere with the liberty and traditional rights of the Jewish community of Denmark. That’s why he asked for my advice in this extremely difficult task, where one need to find some modus vivendi.
If necessary, I myself can call the Prime Minister. For example, several years ago there were anti-Israeli demonstration in the centre of in Copenhagen. The Arabs burned Israeli flags. I phoned the office of the prime minister, and two hours later the prime minister himself called me back asking me what to do about it. A few hours later, he issued a statement condemning the actions of the demonstrators.
I am also present at different ceremonies in connection with The queen, since the chief rabbi is considered as an office appointed by the Queen. In fact what she do is signing the document, certifying the congregations election of this particular rabbi. At present there is only one rabbi in Denmark. And the Chief Rabbi is authorized to issue marriage certificates, birth certificates and death certificates with exactly the same authority and responsibility as any of the Danish protestant priests.
This year, for example, we had three Jewish weddings du to a high rate of aliya to Israel among te youngsters. This year, I travelled to Israel three times in order to arrange a ‘chuppeh’ for Danish citizens. In addition, the today’s families don’t get more than one child, hence the small number of marriages.
My own children live in Israel. They grew up in Denmark, in a remarkable free atmosphere. However, they wanted to marry only with the Jews, wanted to take an active part in the life of the Jewish state. And personally I am very happy that our children have chosen the path that we have always held true.
On the other hand, I understand how it may puzzle people that my offspring and closest family leave for Israel, while my congregation in Denmark is dwindling … Throughout the 400-year history of the Danish Jewish congregation have been oscillating in numbers – sometimes growing mainly by influx from other parts of the world – and sometimes dwindling by people ‘slipping away’. However, I think that any such inflows will nut happen again. The political situation make Danish Jews emigrating to Israel and the United States. On the other hand, Denmark of today is fairly ‘closed to emigration’. Of course, it is impossible to guess, but sooner or later the Jewish community in Denmark will disappear.
In Denmark, anti-Semitism is a virtually non-existent phenomenon. Of course, when something happens in Israel, the local left-wing press has traditionally taken an anti-Israel and pro-Palestinian stance. Nevertheless, the majority of the Danes have a pro-Israeli attitude.
For example, the Synagogue in Copenhagen is open for tours. During an average year 200 domestic groups of Danes visit the Synagogue on tours. Among them are groups of students, school classes etc. Today, religion in Denmark is playing a far greater role than 25 years ago. The fact that Denmark – an extremely secular state – for years have had a great number of immigrants from Muslim countries (traditionally deeply religious), have made the Danes begin to think about religious questions. To many of them even Judaism become attractive.
And there are even non-Jewish Danes, three or four per year, who have been attracted so much, that they converted to Judaism.
The Jewish school in Copenhagen, have about 200 pupils, among them are non-Jews. Beyond the age of bar mitzvah, if parents want their children to continue their education in a Jewish school, the children have to convert. But it work both ways. If the parents want their children to convert to Judaism, they have to learn in a Jewish school. The Danish Jewish community has a very old traditions. Conversion Matters are very complicated. If parents want to give their children a Jewish education, they are have to pay. If they are sending their children the public schools it is free. In the Jewish school, Carolineskolen they must pay the fees. So people are showing their willingness to be members of the community by voting – there votes come in the form of coins.
Bent Lexner was born in 1946 in Denmark. His parents emigrated to Denmark from the Russian Empire in the beginning of the twentieth century heading towards America. But the journey ended in Denmark. During the Second World War the parents of Bent Lexner were among the 7550 Danish Jews rescued from the Nazis. After high school, Bent Lexner engaged in business, took an active part in the activities of the Danish Jewish organizations. In 1971 he went to Israel, where he studied and became a rabbi. In 1976 he returned to Denmark, he taught at the Jewish school, Carolineskolen. In 1996 he became the Chief Rabbi of Denmark. He is married and has three children and six grandchildren.
Based on an 30.7.2010-interview by Alexander Fishman, a reporter of Jewish.ru .
Translated, shortened, adjusted and adapted
by KOPJIK INTERNATIONAL