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Tuesday, September 16, 2014

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Students take part in Jewish life in Sweden

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Renée Zatzman, left, and Alexandra Schwarz spent the High Holidays at the Malmo Synagogue.

Renée Zatzman and Alexandra Schwarz, Special to The CJN

MALMO, Sweden — Having completed two years of studies at the Schulich School of Law at Dalhousie University in Halifax, we were excited at the prospect of studying abroad in our final year. While our acceptance to Lund University in Sweden was at first well received, we experienced apprehension after we researched Jewish life in our host country.

There were several news reports concerning antisemitism in the neighbouring city of Malmo, and the Simon Wiesenthal Center had issued a travel advisory informing Jews to take extreme caution when visiting the area. We wondered if we would feel safe and would be able to continue our involvement in Jewish student life.

Our exchange term overlapped with some of the most significant holidays in the Jewish calendar. Despite our families’ mixed feelings, attending services and participating in meals felt like a necessity, both to uphold our traditions and to demonstrate that we would not be intimidated by antisemitic sentiment.

Our first exposure to Jewish life in Sweden was Rosh Hashanah. Alexandra phoned the local rabbi, Shneur Kesselman, to inquire about services. He explained that the Malmo synagogue would be safe and encouraged us to attend. Knowing that we were far from home during the holidays, the rabbi and the rebbetzin were very kind and invited us into their home for several meals. At the first dinner, they hosted Jews from around the world whose varying and interesting life tales had led them to the same table. The rabbi’s ability to bring different people together to share apples and honey created a special experience.

Thus, in spite of our initial uneasiness, after the dinner we decided to celebrate Rosh Hashanah as we did every year: in shul with our fellow Jews. Apart from the sermon conducted entirely in Swedish during which the only words we understood were “Toronto” and “Chabad,” we immediately felt a sense of familiarity, as the service was very similar to our own in Canada. Our comfort level grew as we sang prayers together, and several congregants greeted us and asked if we had a meal to attend. 

Ten days later, we arrived at the synagogue for Kol Nidre. Barricades blocked the street adjacent to the synagogue, and several armed police, in addition to the private guards, stood outside. We were requested to give our passports and were quizzed on Yom Kippur before being permitted to enter. It was evident that security had been heightened. We were momentarily distracted from any fears as we searched for the rabbi, who had planned to accompany us to light yahrzeit candles in the Jewish community centre nearby. With sundown fast approaching, we realized that a miscommunication might make this impossible. However, with minutes to spare, and with a full congregation inside the synagogue, the three of us ran outside together and, thankfully, made it to the centre on time. After attending services and keeping the fast, we rewarded ourselves with a traditional breakfast meal, as luckily, lox and bagels are plentiful in Sweden.

Three days later, we discovered that there was an explosion at the very same JCC in which we had lit our yahrzeit candles. Various news outlets around the world, including this newspaper, reported on the incident. While there were no injuries, the building was damaged, and we wondered if it would be safe to attend a meal in the sukkah with other students the following week.

Ultimately, we decided that we should not be fearful of celebrating Sukkot in Malmo, and we looked forward to meeting local and international students from the area. We left the meal with a greater understanding of the holiday and established connections with several students who welcomed our addition to their local Facebook group and events. Renée attended a Shabbat meal organized by Swedish students, and while there were language barriers at times, shared experiences at summer camp, Hebrew school and in Jewish organizations brought everyone closer. We look forward to celebrating Chanukah and more Shabbats together in December.

Our time here is quickly coming to a close, and we are incredibly grateful for this positive experience. The community’s generosity has helped us adjust to life away from home and has given us a greater appreciation for something that can easily be taken for granted in Canada: the ability to openly practise our faith without fear. Despite the many challenges facing this community, we are amazed by its strength and kindness. We will always share a special connection with the Jews of Malmo.

Renée Zatzman of Halifax and Alexandra Schwarz of Thornhill, Ont., are co-presidents of the Jewish Law Students’ Association at the Schulich School of Law at Dalhousie University. They are currently studying at Lund University in Lund, Sweden.

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