There’s a long-standing history of Jewish influence in Iceland as some believed the very first Jewish merchants to settle here came from Denmark in the 1600s. Throughout the centuries, the Jewish community in Iceland has slowly but surely been making a difference, as they live alongside a population undoubtedly descendants of the Vikings.
In the modern capital city of Reykjavik, where roughly 135,000 residents make up a sizable portion of the country’s more than 375,000 inhabitants, the city boasts architectural masterpieces such as the iconic HallGrímskirkja Church, designed by Guðjón Samuel, and the Harpa Concert Hall and Conference Center. For something a bit less serious, there’s the famous Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur, a hot dog stand made famous by former U.S. President, Bill Clinton.
The city is a bustling and cold metropolis, many of such found across northern Europe. While driving around Iceland can offer you a view of the dramatic landscapes and rolling hills formed through hundreds of years of volcanic activity, Iceland is a country that bases its economy on export, tourism, and foreign investment.
Yet, through centuries of cultivation, Iceland, the country with the lowest poverty rate among all OECD member countries, it’s home to one of Europe’s smallest, and perhaps most lively Jewish communities to date. Reykjavik may be famous for its architecture and hot dog stands, but it’s still the only European capital without a synagogue.
For the mere 300 or so Jews that live here, life has been anything but easy, and it’s taken years of work, dedication, and effort for them to establish themselves among their Icelandic neighbors.
Life here is a lot different than in continental Europe, so how did the Jewish community come about, and where are they heading?
The history of the very Jewish settlers in Iceland isn’t found in many books and scriptures, but from what we know, the very merchants moved to Iceland from Denmark during the early 1600s.
During the 1800s, immigration to Iceland surged, and while this was short-lived, it was only until the 20th century again when a small handful of Jews were recorded living in Iceland. History tells us that in 1906 the first observant Jews arrived in Iceland, but stayed on the island for roughly 11 years before setting off to continental Europe.
20th Century and the Second World War
By the 20th century, there were no real recordings of any Jews residing in Iceland, and by the later 1930s, Iceland managed to close off its borders to Austrian Jews, as the country saw an uptick in active Nazi Party members controlling most of the country’s ports.
It was only until the 1940s when British forces were able to occupy Iceland, which included a handful of Jews. This was a significant period for the small and active Jewish servicemen, as this signified the very first non-Christian religious ceremony taking place in Iceland in more than 940 years, as around 25 servicemen celebrated Yom Kippur.
Then, in 1941, U.S. military troops broke the bank on the shores of Iceland in support of Britain and would see more than 2,000 active Jewish servicemen on the island. Despite the migration and movement of people to and from the island, Iceland still only recorded around 9 official Jewish residents living in the country in 1945.
Today, things in modern-day Iceland are a lot different than what they were roughly 80 years ago. In 2011, the Icelandic Census Bureau found that an estimated 40 Jews were living in Iceland, most of them in Reykjavik.
More than a decade later, the Jewish population has slowly but steadily increased, seeing between 250 and 300 Jews living in Iceland.
There has not yet been any clear indication of the exact number of Jews that reside in Iceland permanently, some believe that the number is closer to the 300 mark, and in the coming years, there could be more than 300 people making up Iceland’s Jewish population.
Welcoming the first native-born Torah scroll
2020 will always be remembered as the year history was made within the Jewish community, as this marked the birth of the very first native Torah scroll in Iceland. Life for the Jews here has been few and far in between, and until 2018, when rabbi Avi Feldman and his wife, Mushka established Chabad-Lubavitch, there has been significant progress in the recognition of Judaism as an official religion on the small European island.
The process took more than one year to finalize, and the efforts of both the rabbi and local community members helped to speed up the process, just in time before Covid lockdowns and restrictions would cut off Iceland from the rest of the world.
The legacy of Reykjavik and Iceland’s first native Torah scroll came from a donor in Zurich, Switzerland, a donation that has now helped the community solidify itself within the greater acceptance of Icelandic culture.
Reviving the Jewish Community
There has in recent years been more activity coming from the Icelandic Jewish community. Back in 2018, the then 23-year-old Rabbi Avi Feldman was the first rabbi to permanently move to Iceland. Alongside community leaders and members, local efforts have led to some groundbreaking moments for the small community.
In early 2021, after a year-long process that involved the country’s rabbi, Jewish community members, and an Icelandic attorney - Judaism was finally recognized as a religion and practice under government law and officials.
For 80% of the Icelandic population that affiliate themselves with some church or religion, it’s required by local laws that they pay a church tax. The taxes paid by the members are used to advance group efforts within the country. The move by the Icelandic government to recognize Judaism as a religion means that local members can now pay a church tax, and allow for Jewish marriage, baby-naming, and funeral ceremonies.
The recognition of Judaism in Iceland has been a key milestone for the small community, allowing them to share their history and culture with the people of Iceland.
While still small, and active, it’s clear that Iceland’s 300 or so strong Jewish community members are making a difference on the North Atlantic island. In an outlandish attempt, there’s perhaps more that we can expect from the Jews that call Iceland their home, but for the most part, they have established a society of fraternity, and fellowship among the fire and ice of the Nordic nation.