Interview with Rabbi Ute Steyer, Sweden’s first female Rabbi

200x267xGillian,P20Caplin.jpg.pagespeed.ic.fiQpdb3ijkImmigrants, neo-Nazis and Road Bikes: Rabbi Ute Steyer Talks about Jewish Life in Sweden.

Rabbi Ute Steyer, Sweden’s first female Rabbi stopped by Masorti Olami’s offices to tell us about Jewish life in Sweden. While recent news reports of the firebombing of the synagogue and Yom Kippur neo-Nazi march in Gothenburg present a bleak image of Jewish life in Sweden, Rabbi Steyer begs to differ. “There is an impression that Jews in Sweden are constantly being threatened, but it’s just not true. Sweden actually has a very vibrant Jewish community for its size”.

Sitting in our office wearing a huge knit yarn kippah, Rabbi Ute Steyer has a lot to tell us—and not only about Jewish life in Sweden. A self-proclaimed “bike nut”, Rabbi Steyer started off by talking about her five bikes, including a vintage English road bike she built herself, having sourced all original components.
The Jewish community in Sweden, Rabbi Steyer tells us, is unique because most communities are structured as a unified community, or “Einheitsgemeinde” where all Jewish communal institutions are interdenominational. As such, the community works as one cohesive unit with one Jewish summer camp, old age home and school for the entire community. Students attend the Jewish school through 5th grade before progressing on to the high school where they have a Jewish wing within a larger public high school and can continue with college-level studies at Paideia, the European Institute for Jewish Studies where Rabbi Steyer teaches courses in Talmud and Heschel, among others. “You’d be surprised at how active a community we are, especially considering our size” says Rabbi Steyer. “At any given time you can find Jewish community events on any night of the week”.

The Jewish community in Sweden arrived in 1774 when King Gustav III first allowed Jews to settle in Sweden without converting to Protestantism in order to bring German-Jewish engraver Aron Isak to Sweden along with a minyan of Jewish men. The Great Synagogue of Stockholm was built in 1870 and dedicated the following year. Today, the majority of the community is comprised of Holocaust survivors and their descendants who arrived in Sweden after WWII in the White Busses operation of the Swedish Red Cross. They were joined in the 1950’s by Jews from Hungary and a decade later by Polish Jews. While the fall of the Soviet Union brought many Jewish immigrants from Russia, the Russian Jews, like many of the Israelis in Sweden are not actively involved in the greater Jewish community.

There two synagogues in Stockholm which are nominally Orthodox, and the Great Synagogue which is Masorti, but they all work together. The communal mikveh, for example, is located in the Masorti synagogue. “I think it took a while for the Orthodox Rabbi to get his mind around that one” chuckled Steyer “but these days the entire community including Chabad use it”. In addition, there are active Jewish communities in Gothenburg and Malmo.

The Jewish community in Sweden has seen a recent spate of anti-Semitic incidents which have been on the rise recently. The community has been actively lobbying the government to take a more pro-active role in preventing anti-Semitism. “We have identified four distinct types of anti-Semitism that we must fight. There is anti-Semitism on the far-right as well as on the far-left, but it took the Swedish authorities a long time to recognize the existence of left-wing anti-Semitism. We face anti-Semitism from radicalized Muslim extremists, but there are also deeply anti-Semitic attitudes engrained in many of the everyday Muslim immigrants to Sweden—not religious fanatics, but rather people raised with these attitudes who transmit them to their kids. It is very hard for people in Sweden—a homogenous country which has not been at war in over 200 years—to understand such complexities which people in many other countries can easily comprehend. How these people can be both victims and perpetrators at once? How refugees who faced persecution and trauma in their home countries can also be anti-Semitic? It took Swedish authorities a long time to realize that people don’t leave deeply-rooted prejudices at the door the moment they enter Sweden.

In addition to working with the Government and security forces and fostering close security collaboration with the Jewish communities in other Scandinavian countries, the Jewish community of Sweden has also piloted Jewish-Muslim initiatives and collaborations. For example, Rabbi Moshe David HaCohen in Malmo has pioneered a Madrassa study group for cross-cultural education including having two Jewish Mohelim instructing 50 Muslim doctors regarding circumcision. In addition, the Islamic community college in Sweden served as the mentoring institution for the Jewish community college in its first years.

Masorti Olami is currently seeking to develop NOAM activities in Sweden as well as Marom. If you are interested in supporting this initiative, click here to donate. If you plan on being in Sweden, click here for more information on attending services at the Great Synagogue as well as the Jewish community and kosher resources in Stockholm.

Rabbi Steyer can be reached at: ute.steyer@jfst.se