Iceland's Jews Beat Church Taxes and a Circumcision Ban. Now They Even Have a Rabbi

Three years ago, Iceland's small Jewish community was fighting legislation that would ban the circumcision of children. It was an uphill battle because Judaism was not on the island nation's list of officially recognized religions and Jews still paid religious taxes to the state Lutheran church.

Today, Judaism is thriving in the land of fire and ice, and the community celebrated Sukkot with its first convert and an enterprising rabbi who has led it through three years of dramatic change.

Reykjavik was the sole European capital city lacking a resident rabbi until the fall of 2018, when Rabbi Avi Feldman, now 30; his wife, Mushky; and their daughters, who now number four girls under the age of 6, moved in.

Three years later, they are planning to invite members of Iceland's Jewish community, which Feldman estimates numbers 500 to 600, to share meals with them in a sukkah. This ceremonial booth is part of Sukkot (sometimes known as the Feast of Tabernacles), a biblical harvest festival where Jews eat outdoors in temporary dwellings to remember God's care for them after their exodus from Egypt.

Jews all over the world build similar informal outdoor structures for the eight-day Jewish feast, which started on Monday. But this sukkah is in an overwhelmingly Lutheran country where Jews have rarely been acknowledged.

This past Sunday, in a backyard of Feldman's spacious home with views of Faxaflói Bay to the north, three men were trying to figure out how to construct a sukkah out of a pile of two-by-fours.

"Maybe you might ask, 'Aren't you making this kind of strong for Iceland? But you've not seen the wind in Iceland,'" said Mike Levin, a Chicago native who's lived in Iceland since 1986 and was wearing overalls covered with various carpentry tools.

Helping hold nails in place was Finnur Thorlacius, an Icelander hoping to be the nascent community's first convert to Judaism. Many of the Jews in town are expats, he said. Others have landed there after marrying Icelanders. Still others are attached to various foreign embassies. But no one had really pulled this disparate group together until the Feldmans moved in.

Feldman said his time in Iceland, nearing its fourth anniversary, has been extremely positive.

"Personally, we've only had great experiences," he said. "I am a very public person. I always try to make myself available to news channels here. People know who I am. I dress with a kippah [skullcap] and tzitzit [knotted fringes attached to clothing for Jewish men]. People recognize me as a rabbi. I feel very accepted here."

Iceland Jews
Mike Levin, top, Finnur Thorlacius and Rabbi Avi Feldman finish off the first wall of a sukkah booth in Reykjavik. Photo by Julia Duin

This island nation, whose national church is the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Iceland, is not known for welcoming Jews. In fact, Kling & Bang, an art gallery a mile away, is hosting an exhibit through October 3 showing how Icelanders deported or turned Jews away during World War II.

Icelanders allow their tax dollars to go to about 50 recognized religious groups that are subsidized, but not until earlier this year was Judaism considered one of them. In April, thanks to Feldman's efforts, the Israeli Embassy and others, the Icelandic government declared Judaism an official religion, allowing its Jews for the first time to send their church tax portion, known as sóknargjald, to the Jewish Culture Center of Iceland, which is its official name. Feldman admitted he inserted Culture into the title to reach out to non-Jewish Icelanders and introduce them to aspects of his religion.

He has worked hard to persuade locals that, unlike other rabbis who may have dropped by through the years, he is here to stay. He is part of Chabad-Lubavitch, an Orthodox movement known for its outreach to Jews and non-Jews alike and its custom of sending pioneering couples to worldwide locales to strengthen or establish a Jewish presence.

Feldman's hot-off-the-presses 2021-2022 Jewish calendar has scenes from around the island and local ads. He posts inspirational videos on the Jewish Center of Iceland's Facebook page, which slightly differs from the official name lodged with the state. Sometimes he teases readers: "Moses found it important to have a Torah in Icelandic," he said on July 13.

He also maintains a Twitter account ("Sharing the warmth of Judaism in the land of fire and ice," it proclaims); and draws traffic to the group's page.

He has to tread carefully—after all, it was in early 2018 that Iceland's Progressive Party floated a bill banning male circumcision on the ground that the child should be able to give informed consent. (Circumcisions are performed on a Jewish newborn's eighth day.)

Although Icelanders were split over the bill, the country's tiny Muslim and Jewish communities—for whom circumcision is a religious rite—were outraged, and outside observers asked Iceland if it wanted the dubious distinction of being the only European country to ban the act. The bill was shelved that May. The Feldmans moved to Iceland five months later.

The community does circumcisions by flying in a mohel, often a doctor or rabbi trained in the ritual.

Feldman said his wife was one of the inspirations for the move, in that she knew of Jewish visitors in Iceland who couldn't find a Sabbath dinner to attend, much less somewhere to observe Jewish holidays. One recent Friday evening, the Feldmans invited several guests to their table, set for 12. Napkins were tucked decoratively into glasses, and a loaf of braided challah bread—made especially for the Sabbath—was covered by a yellow, brown and orange cloth.

A bouquet of fresh lilies and roses was placed near the dining room table, and the rabbi's sizable library was set up at one end of the living room. A painting of the late Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Chabad movement's most famous leader, was prominently placed on the wall.

Just before 8 p.m., Mushky Feldman lit Sabbath candles set on a large silver tray and invited all women in attendance to do so as well. After prayers over the challah and a bottle of kosher wine—with each guest encouraged to take at least a sip—a dinner of beets, salmon and potatoes was served.

Interest is growing slowly, and some 40 people dropped by for prayers last week during Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement. Feldman has gotten positive and generous press coverage here, and local supermarkets stock some kosher items. It doesn't hurt that salmon and cod, which are plentiful in Iceland, are kosher.

"There's actually a lot of kosher food," the rabbi said. "Because Iceland imports a lot of food, a lot of the dry goods they get are kosher."

Feldman, a tall, scholarly-looking man with a full, dark brown beard and glasses, hails from Brooklyn's Crown Heights neighborhood. There, he met Mushky Namdar, who grew up in Sweden as the daughter of a Chabad rabbi. The couple wanted to pioneer a movement in the same way that her father had, and Iceland seemed a natural choice.

"We did research before coming here," he said. "We've been to Sweden, and the culture and styles of both countries overlap. I was amazed by how beautiful this country is—everything from the northern lights to the volcano to the hot springs."

Speaking of the volcano, Feldman has posted a video on Twitter of him blessing (in Hebrew) Iceland's six-month-old Geldingadalir volcano, which is an easy drive from downtown Reykjavik.

As a huge mound of lava smoked behind him and a helicopter whirled overhead, he said, "This makes us stop and think about this unbelievable creation, this beautiful world that we live in, and we think about the artist who created all of it."

One difference their presence has made, he said, was the establishment of an annual Holocaust memorial ceremony that was held in 2020 at the Polish Embassy and via Zoom last year. "Actually, other institutions reach out to us and asked us to be a part of it," the rabbi said. "I feel a memorial to the Holocaust deserves strong attention."

As for current attitudes, "I can't say there is no anti-Semitism here," he added. "There's always haters."

If so, they're keeping well hidden. Iceland's Jews hope to someday have their own synagogue, Jewish community center and mikvah, a ceremonial pool for women to bathe in after their menstrual cycle has ended. Mushky Feldman said they're trying to raise roughly $50,000 to construct one.

Previously, "people were saying, 'But there's no rabbi here,'" she said. "Now, it's an amazing, blossoming, growing Jewish community."