What Happened to My Scandinavia? Part I: Norway

What follows is a sad story. I visited Scandinavia for the first time in 1984, having been invited by the Chief Rabbi of Sweden to give a lecture on Soviet Jewry.
Since leaving the Soviet Union, I have visited more than 50 countries around the world. Scandinavia was always a favorite destination. I fell in love with the beauty of its nature. I always knew I would return. I decided to go at this time because of the dramatic changes taking place there. I worried that in a few years, my beloved Scandinavia would be gone. On my taxi ride from the airport into Oslo I was taken aback even more than I expected. My Muslim driver drove me through his little neighborhood, known as “Little Karachi”. I remembered what I’d witnessed in London the previous year: demonstrators holding placards that read “Death to the Jews”. That was when I decided to stop wearing my kipper in Europe.

What i saw from the taxi window was not the same Oslo I knew those many years ago: dirt in the streets; rotten fruits and vegetables in the gutter; Arabic names on shops; women clad in burkas; Arabic music streaming out of restaurants. Out of a population of 7 million in Norway, 17% are Muslim. The country has been overwhelmed and is struggling with a backlash. A massacre of Muslims by a person in 2011 appalled the Norwegians and led them to once again open a welcome to Muslims. With the recent flood of Syrian migrants everything is now in flux. Of course, the focus of my visit was the Jewish life in Scandinavia. During WWII, Norway was occupied by Nazis. 758 Jews were murdered – almost half of the Jewish population, and mostly in Auschwitz. By 1946 there remained only 559 Jews in Norway. Today, the Jewish community is comprised of about 1,000 people.

There is a rabbi, Chabad of course, in Oslo, his name is Rabbi Shaul Wilhelm. While he does not have a synagogue, he conducts Jewish life in his apartment. I was honored to be invited by Rabbi Wilhelm to Shabbat done with 30 other people. As it happened, we had a baby naming, a service and a sumptuous Shabbat dinner prepared by the rebbetzen. Everybody there had a story: An Israeli businessman who fell in love with a local woman who eventually converted. Now Orthodox, they have four children together. A Ukrainian Jew who had heard of a Jewish summer camp in Hungary. There he met a girl from St. Petersburg. They maintained a long distance relationship. They met again at a seminar of Jewish leaders and came to Oslo where Rabbi Shaul married them. She is now pregnant and he wears a black hat and a tzitzit. Several local Jews whose children and grandchildren are living all over the world.

An economics professor from Berkley in his 60’s; his wife is considering conversion.
A famous surgeon from Tzefat now teaching medicine at the University in Oslo.

I asked many questions at the dinner, but the most poignant was, “Is there a future for Jews in Norway?” The guests answered, “Is there a future for Jewish life in Europe? Is there a future for the Jewish people anywhere? Will our grandchildren be living here in Norway? Nobody knows.” Everybody around the table nodded.