Chabad to Open Iceland's First Synagogue

In the island nation with 250 Jews, ritual slaughter of animals is illegal and circumcision is poised to be outlawed as well

The Iceland delegation parades during the opening ceremony of the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympic Games at the Pyeongchang Stadium on February 9, 2018
AFP PHOTO / POOL / JAVIER SORIANO

The Chabad movement is sending emissaries, a rabbi and his wife, to Iceland, an island nation with 250 Jews where ritual slaughter of animals is illegal and circumcision is poised to be outlawed as well.

Rabbi Avi Feldman, 27, of Brooklyn, New York and his Sweden-born wife Mushky are slated to settle with their two daughters in Reykjavík, the world’s northernmost capital city and Europe's only capital without a synagogue, later this year, the couple told JTA last week.

The announcement closely followed news last month that lawmakers from four political parties in Iceland submitted a bill proposing to outlaw non-medical circumcision of boys younger than 18 and equates that practice, common among Jews and Muslims, with female genital mutilation – the custom of removing parts of a girl’s clitoris, which is common in some African Muslim communities.

“We hope to bring awareness of the relevance and importance of brit milah,” the rabbi told JTA, using the Hebrew-language word for Jewish ritual circumcision, which is typically performed on boys when they are eight days old. “We hope to bring this awareness to local Icelandic people and especially to lawmakers in their decision on rules, which we hope will have a religious exemption clause.” While Rabbis have temporaliy been in the country before as part of the U.S. military presence in the country, the synagogue will be the first in the country's modern history.

Rabbi Feldman and his wife visited Iceland in December and organized a Hanukkah celebration for the community, which is made up of some locals and Jewish expatriates from the United States and Israel. The couple hopes to set up an educational framework for Jewish children, a synagogue and a mikvah, or Jewish ritual bath, none of which exist in Iceland, a nation of some 300,000 people.

A Chabad spokesperson said Iceland is one of only a handful of European capital cities without a synagogue.

The absence of infrastructure for Jewish communities can be seen as “a challenge,” the rabbi said, “but it’s also a tremendous opportunity, to set up a living breathing community,” he said. Notwithstanding, local Jews have celebrated holidays in Iceland also without a resident rabbi, often with help from yeshiva students and Chabad rabbis who came there especially to celebrate the dates, Rabbi Feldman said, calling this “inspiring and very special.”

Despite the decades long ban on ritual slaughter in Iceland, “the country actually has a lot more kosher products than many people realize,” Rabbi Feldman said. This is because the island depends on imports from Europe and the United States, “so this means you can find products with a kosher label in your average minimarket,” he said.

Mushky Feldman, who grew up in Gothenburg, Sweden, said she looked forward to “bringing the light of Judaism to one of the world’s darkest places,” a reference to how, in January, Reykjavík enjoys only 4.5 hours of daylight. “But sunrise comes after 11 a.m., so that means we’ll get to see the sunrise everyday,” she noted. In summer, Reykjavík has days with 18 hours of daylight.

The Feldmans will travel to Reykjavík next month to organize a Passover seder, they said.