Can Malmö be saved?

Andreas Lovén reports from Sweden´s third largest city.
Before the attack in Copenhagen there were 23 Jewish children at the Jewish kindergarten in Malmö. Now there are only five left. What will happen with Malmö’s Jewish community, and why do Jews there choose to leave? Andreas Lovén reports from his home town.

The woman laughs on the phone when I tell her I want to know more about Jewish life in Malmö and for that purpose visit the kindergarten.

”That sounds positive”, she says when she’s stopped laughing, ”but soon you won’t have any Jewish children left here. They’ve all moved”.

During the summer that passed the Jewish preschool sent out advertisements to a number of non-Jewish households. In the brochure the small-scaleness and quality of the teaching practise were stressed. This is in no way different from the appeals of other preschools.

But no other kindergarten would have to specify the security details or have bulletproof doors or security cameras next to the childrens’ garish rainwear. And no other kindergarten has experienced a 75 % drop in attendance due to fear arising from a terrorist attack in a neighbouring city.

Chinuch has experienced that. That is why they are now recruiting non-Jewish children. Otherwise they risk having a whole section of the preschool, or maybe more than that, stand empty.

”When the Rabbi is attacked worry spreads like wildfire. It’s like living in a neighbourhood with a pyromaniac on the loose”.

The metaphor is provided by Lars Dencik, debater and professor of social psychology at the University of Roskilde.

He relates to the recent and global poll with 53 000 respondents, conducted by the international organization Anti-Defamation League. Conclusion drawn: Sweden is one of the world’s least Anti-Semitic countries.

Through his own research Lars Dencik has drawn the same conclusions. Jews in Sweden feel safe and at home. With one exception. ”Jews in Malmö are more afraid than the ones living in Gothenburg and Stockholm”.

Anti-Semitism in Malmö has gained notoriety since 2010, when the city’s strong man-Ilmar Reepalu (Social-Democrats)-repeatedly showed insensitivity towards the Jewish minority in his town.

When something happens in Malmö it reverberates across the world. In Jewish circles in the US people wonder how on earth anyone Jewish would keep on living there. The city has a very bad reputation”.

Reepalu’s statements and the sensationalism of the international press both contribute to the impression that Malmö is an anti-Jewish stronghold, according to Lars Dencik. This rumour has later been strongly exaggerated by Zionist organizations.

”It’s been in their interest to magnify the fear. Come here-come to Israel! And they’ve depicted a picture of calamity. And many people believe it, at least in the US”.

Lars Dencik sees other reasons than Anti-Semitism for the Jewish exodus from Malmö.

”People want to be in a congregation that’s flourishing. And to be a part of that you have to go elsewhere, maybe to Stockholm. There things are less gloomy when it comes to Jewish life. Moreover, Jewish youngsters are urban. Jewish culture propels us to educate our children-and to work in other big cities is always tempting”.

Dencik points to the fact that there used to be Jewish communities in small towns like Kristianstad, Karlshamn and Växjö. But gradually, Jews have tended to consolidate in bigger cities, and this is a continuation of that trend.

It’s quarter to seven in the morning. Soon Noah, 3, will be going to the Jewish preschool, but for now he’s curled up in his parents’ bed. Hanna, his mother, is happy about being able to place her son in a Jewish kindergarten.

”When he sees burning candles he automatically associates this to Shabbat. He is a Swedish boy, and speaks Swedish, but he can also take part of Jewish life”.

She believes that the family keeps more Jewish traditions now than they would have done, had the boy not been attending a Jewish preschool.

”Like lighting the Shabbat candles on Fridays, that wouldn’t have happened otherwise. But now he gets to do that, and I encourage it. A boy in Malmö in 2015 who attends a Jewish kindergarten. Wow! That instills hope”.

After roaming the world for a decade Hannah met her big love, got pregnant and decided to return to her childhood town. She had had a good childhood there.

Why did you move back to Malmö?

”I had friends and family here. Life as a parent is easier in Sweden. We didn’t think much about Anti-Semitism back then. It was only after the attack in Copenhagen that I started thinking about it a lot, especially when I leave and fetch my son from kindergarten. It’s insane, really”

Like many other parents she weighed the option of extracting Noah from the Jewish preschool. But he stayed on, and today she feels a certain responsibility to contribute to the preschool’s survival.

The terrorist attack at the Jewish museum in Brussels, the attack against the kosher deli in Paris, and the murder of the security guard Dan Uzan outside the synagogue in Copenhagen. All of this led to an earth-quake that spread to Sweden.

”It was felt in Stockholm as well, but much more so in Malmö. There, many people had strong personal ties to the security guard”, says Thomas.

He is one of those who left the city. Now he’s in Skåne to visit his daughter.

”I was never a member of the congregation. It was a conscious decision and it had to do with the prevailing religious denomination in the congregation. I view myself as a believer, but I’m not orthodox”.

Thomas moved to Stockholm a few years back, and immediately signed up as a member in the congregation.

”There is pluralism there and more religious streams. I could choose for myself what suited me best”.

The orthodox approach seems to have deterred many people, but nowadays there is more competition: a female Rabbi leads egalitarian services, not in the synagogue but rather in the congregation’s library.

Rabbi Rebecca Lilian claims that there are many ways of expressing one’s Jewshness, and feels that everyone should be able to co-exist under one roof.

”The whole spectrum from Orthodox to Reform and Secularists-there is a place for everyone. We don’t have the luxury of inner-squabbling, there are too few of us”.

That the community is shrinking and Jews are moving out is not just due to Anti-Semitism, in her opinion. There are other reasons, like ”being preoccupied with security and forgetting how to greet new potential members”

How are you received as a female Rabbi?

”Everyone in the egalitarian faction are positive. But the Orthodox don’t accept me as a Rabbi”.

Is there still a community here in ten years?

”I sure hope so, but that would require more openness towards other forms of Jewish expression. Pluralism is the only hope for this congregation’s survival”.

The sore relationship between the Malmö municipality and the Jewish congregation is not new, and it was only after the attacks in Copenhagen that it started improving. The municipality started channeling more funds to the congregation and exerted pressure on the police and central government. ”Most things were easily solved, but that the preschool lost so many children was the most difficult issue”, says local government commissioner Andreas Schönström (Social Democrats).

”I understand that parents out of fear won’t let their children stay there. But how do we turn this around? To be successful we need to ensure that people feel safe in the Jewish congregation’s facilities and activities”.

What if the synagogue turns into a museum in the future?

”That would be devastating for Malmö’s identity. The Synagogue would turn into a monument of our failure, attesting to the fact that we weren’t able to create security for everyone”.

Freddie Gelberg is the interim vice president of the Jewish congregation. It’s a tiresome job, in his experience.

”This congregation is made up of 450 presidents, who all seem to know best”.

He’s a pensioner-which gives him more time to deal with matters of survival for the community. One is the suspicion existing between the Orthodox and the Egalitarians. Another one is diminishing numbers of members. Since 2010 they’ve lost one third. Meanwhile the community center is in a process of decay. Radical decisions lie ahead.

”We have to make some painful decisions. We might have to sell the building housing the community center. It would cost millions to renovate”.

But the next board meeting will not deal with the community building but with the preschool.

Will the kindergarten be shut down?

”It would bring us grief. But we will have no choice if our target group no longer sees the preschool as a viable option”.

Since the attack against the synagogue on Krystalgade only five out of twenty-three Jewish children remain.

”Parents speak among themselves. Someone has his child taken out, and then it catches on from there. And the heavily armed policement outside of the kindergarten might have acted as more of a deterrent for people than a source of calm”, says Freddy Gellberg.

It’s hard to prevent Jews from leaving Malmö, in his opinion. Neither does he think that Anti-Semitism is the main reason for this.

Nonetheless, he has a potential solution:

”After World War 2 there was a huge influx of refugees who became the backbone of the community. When Anti-Semitism kicked off in Polen in 1968 there were also new arrivals. Time and again, new immigrants have saved our community. Were there to come 500-600 Jews from the Ukraine that would be a much valued addition”.

So you’re hoping that the situation deteriorates for Ukrainian Jewry?

”No. But there are a lot of Jews there, and very few have yet to leave”.

The comfort of morning is over for Noah. He dutifully consents to being dressed in outdoor clothing, below the mezuzah, which is situated on the inside of the door post. To place it on the outside, and show that a Jewish family lives here is something Hanna is not prepared to do.

Ten minutes later they have passed the security doors to preschool. It turns out that the kindergarten has lost two more children.

How would you react if the kindergarten had to close down?

”That would really be a downer. I can’t bear the thought”.

She recalls how she as a kid would stand outside the synagogue and speak with friends and acquaintances without being concerned about security. The shift came in the late 90’s when the congregants were strictly called upon to disperse after the service, due to the security risk.

”I don’t think about the fact that the doors to the kindergarten are bulletproof, but when I tell my non-Jewish friends about it they think it’s totally absurd. You get used to most things, don’t you?”

Andreas Lovén

Reporter at Sweden’s National Radio

Notation: Thomas, Hanna and Noah are pseudonyms.

Translation from Swedish: Tobias Goldman