Iceland’s Jewish community is now in the final stage of being recognised as an official religious group; the sole remaining part of the process is tax authorities creating an official ID number (kennitala) for the Jewish Culture Society of Iceland. The Grapevine spoke with Rabbi Avi Feldman about this news.
What took so long?
While there has been a Jewish community in Iceland for a very long time now, Jews have never been a part of the official tally of religious practitioners in the country. Rabbi Feldman believes there were many factors in play for this to be the case.
“It’s a long process, so it’s easy for it to fall apart along the way,” he told us. “Everything has to be done; all the boxes checked, all the forms have to be filled, all the letters have to be written. So if people get busy, or if there’s some little bump in the road, it can fall apart. What was different this time is that we, the people in the community, got together with the attorney and we decided that we’re going to see this through and make this happen.”
That said, even with this work done, the official numbers might not exactly reflect the reality, for historical reasons.
“This is not to say that the statistics are going to all of the sudden reflect exactly the number of Jews and the exact activities that are happening,” Rabbi Feldman says. “I think historically, especially in Europe, not all Jews are going to be comfortable registering with the community. Which is totally fine; we’re not putting any kind of pressure on anyone to register. This is not the kind of community where you have to be a member and you have to sign up to participate. Everyone is always invited. Whoever feels comfortable is welcome to sign up as well. Friends of the community can also sign up if they so wish.”
The joy of recognition
The formalisation has been a boon to the Jewish community in Iceland, and spirits are high.
“Recognition is a really great thing,” Rabbi Feldman says. “Just the fact that Judaism is now recognised in Iceland is I think I very important. Of course, there are many good things that come along with that, but just the recognition brings us all great joy and I think everyone is really proud of this team effort and accomplishment.”
Right now, the group has already completed filing and submitted their paperwork. They are now awaiting a kennitala from tax authorities, which may take some time, as it is currently tax season.
“In a way, it’s a very big deal and a very important step,” he says. “But at the same time, it’s not a new community. The community has been here and has been active for a very long time. It’s a really great thing that’s happening as it’s becoming formal, official and recognised, but the community has been active for a very long time.”
A synagogue for Iceland?
Icelandic law gives any legally registered religious group in the country the right to a plot of land for building a house of worship. Could this mean a synagogue will soon be raised in Iceland?
“In the future, we plan to have a synagogue,” Rabbi Feldman said. “Currently, there is no official Synagogue of Iceland. Of course, during COVID we don’t do this, but pre-COVID, we were renting spaces whenever we needed to. So we could meet in hotel ballrooms or meeting rooms, and we can have events and services there. In Judaism, you don’t need to have a special building. It can be any kind of building; basically all you need is a room, and it’s what you do inside there [that matters]. That’s how we’ve been doing it in the past. In the future, we plan and hope that there will be a Synagogue of Iceland. Getting the community recognised, that’s one way to get that to happen.”
Celebrate good times (safely)
When asked if the community was planning any celebrations, Rabbi Feldman said that they have been erring on the side of caution when it comes to public gatherings.
“We’re not really doing any parties now because of COVID, even though technically we’re allowed to do certain things, but we’re trying to be extra careful and go beyond the letter of the law,” he said. “In a way, we’re celebrating the Jewish community every time there’s a holiday or event. So in some ways, some people don’t feel as though there’s something really new here. Of course, people are very excited that now it’s come to this.”
The upcoming general meeting, which will be held over Zoom, “will generally be the place for people to express their joy, their happiness, their satisfaction that this has been approved. I’ve been getting a lot of messages, and people are very happy and news is spreading in the community, and people are just really excited about it. It’s really incredible to see. It’s amazing to see that everyone is excited about this. Even people who don’t participate so often, or even people who live further outside of Reykjavík, everyone who I’m talking to is really pleased with this.”
Rabbi Feldman also wanted to emphasise that every step of this process has been a collective effort, which began even before he arrived in the country.
“This was really a team effort of people in the community, even way before we came to Iceland,” he said. “This is really decades in the making. This was because everyone got together, everyone did their part, and we thank everyone who participated. Through this, there are new opportunities. The community could grow and become more active. I think it gives people a certain sense of belonging in a country where Judaism has not been recognised in the past. Now that it is, I feel like people might have a certain sense of belonging or connection to something that has been formalised and made official. I think that’s a wonderful thing.”
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