MALMO, Sweden — When Israeli rabbi Moshe David Hacohen was presented with the opportunity to lead Malmo, Sweden’s local Jewish community, he wasn’t discouraged by the city’s reputation for hostility towards Jews and Israel.
“I thought that if a place so small is on the global map, maybe there is something worth doing about [prevailing attitudes], because a positive impact there probably has the potential to set a model elsewhere,” Hacohen told The Times of Israel.
The 38-year-old rabbi was one of the speakers at ÖresundsLimmud 2018. The event is organized annually in March by the local Limmud branch, an organization devoted to Jewish learning. Öresunds is a metropolitan area that includes both Malmo and the Danish capital Copenhagen, which are separated only by a small stretch of sea 15 kilometers (9 miles) wide.
In spite of the snow that covered Malmo for the first time in years, about 200 people from both communities attended the event, which offered sessions in Swedish, Danish and English, and featured a number of international speakers, including this reporter.
To the occasional visitor, Malmo presents itself as pleasant and quiet: the urban architecture has a typical Nordic quality, the frozen sea and canals are home to hundreds of birds, and families stroll around. The synagogue stands majestically in the city center, just a block away from Kungsparken, the oldest park in the city.
A nearby apartment building hosts the Jewish Community Center, where Malmo’s Jews hold gatherings and various activities, including the festive pre-Limmud Shabbaton for out-of-town guests, which featured delicious salmon-based meals. Salmon, the residents explain, offers an affordable alternative to kosher meat, which is very expensive — partly due to the fact that shechita, or Jewish ritual slaughter, is banned in the country.
“Our community has about 450 paying members,” explained Fredrik Sieradzki, head of the local Jewish Information Center. “The community is small, but alive.”
“We organize Shabbatons and cultural events on a regular basis, there is a preschool, afternoon classes for schoolchildren, active branches of the youth movement Bnei Akiva and the Women’s International Zionist Organization,” Sieradzki said.
Not all a walk in the park
The difficulties Malmo faces because of its swelling immigrant population, largely made up of people from Muslim countries — about 20 percent of the 300,000 residents — has earned the city international attention in recent years.
Among those taking the brunt of the slow integration rate are the members of the Jewish community. The synagogue has been vandalized, and there have been countless verbal and even physical attacks on the city’s Jews.
“We are torn. On the one hand, we must tell the situation as it is. On the other, our life here is not just about anti-Semitism — there are many positive aspects, and it’s important to also focus on them,” said Sieradzki.
Many community members attending Limmud agreed.
“Is it frustrating to see everyone speak about Malmo’s problems without even knowing anything about the city,” said Rebecca Lillian, an American who moved to Malmo six years ago and serves as the rabbi of the egalitarian minyan.
“I have never experienced anti-Semitism here, although I also need to acknowledge that I don’t wear a kippah or anything that would make me immediately recognizable as Jewish. I know that the people who do have often found themselves in difficult situations,” Lillian said.
People from the community also expressed the feeling that Swedish society at large is not always very understanding of their identity or beliefs, and many were critical of the government for its positions on Israel.
We have a good life here, but I tend not to mention the fact that I’m Jewish or talk about Israel with my patients
“We have a good life here, but I tend not to mention the fact that I’m Jewish or talk about Israel with my patients, only a tiny percentage of whom are Muslim,” confirmed Kerstin Flamholc, who runs a dental practice.
In spite of the anti-Semitic incidents, in Malmo there are no police or soldiers guarding the Jewish sites, in contrast to many other European cities.
Some pointed out that the size of the community rather than anti-Semitism is the most challenging aspect of the life in the city, especially among the young.
“I would like to live an Orthodox lifestyle and here it’s almost impossible,” said 28-year-old Fredric Lindgren. “Most of my friends already live in Israel, and I’m planning to move myself.”
New leadership, new partnerships
For many years, the Jews in Malmo didn’t have a primary rabbi. Rabbi Shneur Kesselman, an emissary from the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic movement, stepped up, including leading Shabbat services — which feature a prayer for the royal family in Swedish.
The idea of bringing in Hacohen was inspired by Rabbi Michael Melchior, a former chief rabbi of Denmark who currently lives in Israel and is involved in many interfaith dialogue initiatives. The idea was to find someone who could work both with the Jewish community and with the city’s Muslim population.
After he moved to Malmo with his wife and five children in February 2017, Hacohen started an organization called “Amanah: The Muslim and Jewish Trust and Faith Project,” co-directed by himself and local imam Salahuddin Barakat. The name was not chosen by chance: amanah is a word whose root belongs to both Hebrew, with a main connotation of faith, and Arabic, meaning trust.
One of the main efforts of Hacohen and Barakat is speaking in schools.
“The schools are either 95 percent Muslim or have very few Muslim students. The segregation itself shows the problem: If people with different backgrounds do not interact, there is no opportunity for mutual knowledge,” said Hacohen.
Hacohen, who is pursuing a PhD in Jewish Thought at the University of Haifa, is originally from Tekoa, an Israeli settlement in the West Bank, where he was heavily involved in dialogue with the Palestinians, following the path of peace-seeking Rabbi Menachem Froman.
He acknowledges that his presence can be trying for the Muslim students.
Their portrayal of Jews as pro-Israel, and therefore occupiers, and therefore a legitimate target for an attack, is not acceptable
“It is very important for me that they feel appreciated for their religious identity, but I am also there to challenge them,” said Hacohen. “For example, on the Palestinian issue, I try to make them understand that their portrayal of Jews as pro-Israel, and therefore occupiers, and therefore a legitimate target for an attack, is not acceptable.”
In schools where the population is largely of Swedish origin, the conversation is different.
“We focus on how the Swedish society needs to open up to the fact that some people have an identity which is important for them to show in the public sphere, something generally not considered acceptable here,” Hacohen explained.
Amanah also organizes a beit midrash/madrassa (study hall in Hebrew and Arabic) every two months, delving into religious texts of both faiths on issues of mutual interest, such as the biblical episode of the binding of Isaac (or Ishmael according to the Muslim read), ritual slaughter, and circumcision.
“The beit midrash for me is a dream: 80 people learning together, men, women, religious, secular, half of them Muslim and half Jewish. People from both sides arrived skeptical about sitting in a room with the other, but they are slowly changing their attitude and the number of participants is growing,” Hacohen said.
The rabbi also emphasizes that he and Barakat make a point in speaking up about cases of anti-Semitism or Islamophobia, and they are already witnessing the first fruits of their efforts.
“For example, when during a pro-Palestinian rally few months ago, the protesters shouted chants about shooting the Jews, the leaders of pro-Palestinian movements themselves visited the synagogue and put out a statement of condemnation,” Hacohen recalled.
The goal of Amanah goes beyond achieving better knowledge and understanding between the Jews and the Muslims in Sweden.
“We want to create a better civil society for everyone,” Hacohen concluded. “If we succeed, the city of Malmo could show the way for a viable future in Europe. Because we will prove that if something like this can be done in Malmo, it can be done anywhere else.”