Iceland’s Jewish community reached a historic milestone last month when Judaism was officially registered as a religion in the country. Though Jewish people have been living in Iceland since the late 1800s, the group had not been registered as an official religious community until this year. Iceland’s only Rabbi, Avi Feldman, says although the recognition comes with some practical benefits, it doesn’t necessarily change much for the community, which has been active for decades.
“On the one hand, there is no change, because Jewish life has been active here for a long time,” Rabbi Feldman told Iceland Review. “I can speak for the past few years since we’ve come here, there’s been all sorts of wonderful things happening. The community was here, it just wasn’t registered and it’s more of a formal thing. But at the same time people feel, and I feel very strongly, that it’s also a historic step and something that is a wonderful accomplishment.”
Formal recognition of a religious group comes with some practical benefits in Iceland. “First of all, there are the life cycle events starting with baby namings, bar and bat mitzvahs, weddings, and funerals: all of these things can now be done within the community and recognised,” Rabbi Feldman explains. In Iceland, all taxpayers can participate in a religious tax and choose which religious organisation their funds are directed to. “So now there’s the option that they can direct these funds to the Jewish community.”
The registration should also make it easier for the Jewish community to eventually acquire a plot of land. “In the future we would love to see some type of Jewish community centre that could house all sorts of things. It could house a synagogue, some type of Jewish museum for people to learn about Jewish life and values and history so there’s all kinds of possibilities.”
Aim to Build a Welcoming Community
According to the Rabbi, the community’s ultimate goal is not to have as many registered members as possible, rather to create a welcoming environment for Jews and others. “To us, the most important thing is not people registering and having a certain membership. Our belief is that anyone who is Jewish is part of the Jewish community, everyone has a place here. We have people of different backgrounds, different levels of observance, different customs: we try to give all of these people the feeling that the community is a place for them and they are welcome there.”
The Rabbi acknowledges that not all Jewish people in Iceland would necessarily want to become registered members either. “Jewish people might understandably think twice about actually registering with the community – they may want privacy. We’ve had a difficult history, even recent history in the last century. We don’t put any pressure on anyone to register themselves, so I don’t think the number of registered people will ever reflect the actual size of the community, and that’s OK.”
When he moved to Iceland with his family a few years ago, Rabbi Feldman expected to find fewer than 100 Jewish people living in the country. “But actually every single week, sometimes every single day, we’re meeting people. People are reaching out, friends bring friends, we’re constantly meeting new people who we didn’t know about before who are living in Iceland. So I would say that just after living here for a few years, we know a few hundred Jews, and I don’t think we know everyone, so it could be double or triple that number.”
Rabbi Feldman speaks positively about his experience living in Iceland. “Iceland is a wonderful place, we’ve had excellent experiences here, people are so nice and we feel so welcome and accepted. The registration is a continuation of that effort of making it clear that every community has a place.”
The Jewish Center of Iceland will hold a Holocaust Memorial today in collaboration with the Polish, German, and US Embassies in Iceland at this link.