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Norway Virtual Jewish History Tour

[By: Ingrid Muller]

Norway, lying on the northwestern edge of the Scandinavian peninsula, has a Jewish history that likely dates only back to the 16th century. Today, approximately 1,300 Jews live in Norway.

Learn More - Cities of Norway:

- Early History
- First Jewish Community
- World War II Period
- Modern Oslo

Early History

As far back as in the year 1000, the Norwegian king, Olav den Hellige, forbade everyone who was not Christian to live in Norway but only in the time of king Christian IV (late 16th century) do we find specific references to the Jews. The Jews in question were mainly those who in 1492 and 1498 were driven out of Spain and Portugal. These Sephardi Jews first settled in the Netherlands and in Hamburg. In Norway, these were called “Portuguese-Jews.” Some of them were given special permission to enter Norway when no other Jews could. Those who were still in Norway at the beginning of the 19th century in most cases let themselves be baptised. The king, Christian IV, thought that the Jews could be helpful to his country but because of opposition from the clergy, he had to be satisfied with letting the Jews settle in duchies of Slesvig-Holstein. Jews had been permitted to live there from 1620. They were now granted freedom of religion and in 1630 the king gave them permission to travel freely in Denmark and Norway and also do trade there. The Jews living in this area were not, as in many other countries, forced to live in ghettos or in special Jewish streets or wear clothes which would distinguish them as being Jewish. In 1641, the king extended his “protection” to include “Aschkenazi-Jews,” from Eastern-, Central- and part of Western Europe.

King Christian IV's successor, King Fredrik III, was not as liberal as his predecessor and during his time the Jews in the area once again lived under strict conditions. They were not allowed to be in the Danish-Norwegian kingdom without a form of visa . In 1687, when Norway was united with Denmark under King Christian V's law, the prohibition of Jews entering the country was reinserted. There was a fine for anyone who broke this law and a reward for the person who informed against a Jew. About 150 years later, in 1830, the attitude towards Jews was somewhat more lenient and by 1844 the Justice Department decided that “Portuguese-Jews” would be permitted to enter freely.

In 1814, Norway acquired its first constitution. This document was relatively liberal, but in §2 it stated that the official state religion was Lutheran Protestantism and that Jews and Jesuits were forbidden from entering the kingdom. The lobbying to change this paragraph was led by the national poet, Henrik Wergeland. In 1851 the ban was indeed reversed, six years after the Wergeland's death.

Establishment & Development of the First Jewish Community

Following this, Jews in small numbers started arriving to Norway, mainly from Poland and Lithuania. These were often people who did not have money to go to America. In June 1892, the first Jewish community was established in Christiania (now Oslo). The community was first given the name Det Jødiske Samfund i Christiania (The Jewish Community in Christiania) but only one year later it was changed to Det Mosaiske Trossamfund (The Mosaic Community). At this stage there were 214 Jews in Norway, 136 of them living in Christiania. When the community was established, it had about 100 members. They decided to keep to the Orthodox tradition, though most of the members were not very observant with regard to the Halachic laws.

A few examples of the goals of the community were:

— To preserve Jewish interests in Norway.
— To gather members for communal synagogue services.
— Engage a teacher.

The development of the community continued through the following years. In 1892, an immigrant from Lithuania was employed as teacher for the children, cantor, shochet and mohel. The same year, fixed times for prayers were set and a place was rented to be used as a synagogue. In 1893 the community employed a rabbi, Dr. Meyer Ashkanaze, and as the number of members increased, the synagogue was moved from place to place. During the next 30 years, the number of Jews in Norway increased from 642 persons (343 in Christiania) to 1457 (852 in Christiania) . The immigrants came from Eastern Europe and the reasons for this great immigration was The First World War, persecution of Jews and general suffering in Europe.

Between 1900 and 1910 there were four small Jewish communities in Christiania at the same time. One of them, Israels Menighet i Christiania, Adath Yeshurun (Israel's Congregation in Christiania, Adath Yeshurun), was led by the same rabbi Dr. Aschkenaze, who had been the rabbi of Det Mosaiske Trossamfund (The Mosaic Community) only a few years earlier. These communities had very small differences concerning ideology and by 1910 they had merged into one, namely Det Mosaiske Trossamfund. In 1917, yet another congregation was established as a result of dissatisfaction with the way the bigger congregation was run but by 1939 there was again only one congregation, Det Mosaiske Trossamfund. This has remained the situation until today. About 3/4 of the approximately 2000 Norwegian Jews, were affiliated to this community in Oslo, or the smaller community, which had been established in Trondheim. The Jewish population, in Norway, has never exceeded this number.

Between 1915 and 1940, Jewish cultural life in Oslo blossomed. Several competing theatrical groups, performing in Yiddish, choirs, cultural organisations (also in Yiddish) as well as academic organisations were established. In 1910 the Jewish Youth Association was established, becoming the most active and important organisation within the Jewish community. During the years 1935-1940, a number of study-circles were held, led by the community's rabbi, Isak Julius Samuel. In 1942, the rabbi was deported and killed by the Nazis.

World War I & the Reestablishment of the Community

In 1940, the Germans occupied Norway. Norwegian newspapers and media were full of anti-Semitic propaganda and the Norwegian government was taken over by Nazis (Quisling). Two years later, in 1942, 750 Jews were deported to Auschwitz. Of these, only 25 survived. The remainder of the Norwegian Jewry managed to escape to Sweden, where they lived as refugees until the end of the war. Over 100 Jews served in the Free Norwegian Forces, mostly stationed in Britain.

After the end of the war, in 1945, when some of the refugees returned, the Jewish community in Oslo was re-established. They found the synagogue in Oslo unharmed, miraculously. It had been used as a storage place for Nazi-literature and confiscated Jewish belongings during the war. Even the Torah Scrolls were still there, unharmed. The synagogue could, therefore, be used again as soon as it was cleaned up. The new rabbi of the community was Rabbi Zalman Aronzon. However, the level of activity, at the time, was much lower than before the war and there were long periods without a rabbi, limited teaching capability and little spiritual leadership. In 1947 the Norwegian government permitted the immigration of several hundred Jewish refugees, mostly from Hungary. In 1960, a community centre was built next to the synagogue.

In the late 1970's a serious revival of the community began, with the appointment of a new, young rabbi, Michael Melchior and a new leadership. The rabbi made many changes in the education system. Besides from intensifying the intellectual challenge of the studying, he also tried to build on the principle that “Jewish culture should not merely be learnt but also lived.” The “classroom-education” was extended to include obligatory weekend-seminars and camps, which would let the children actually experience what they were learning. Since then, many institutions have been established: kindergarten, well-attended synagogue services, Cheider (afternoon classes) for all school children, aged-home, a supply of kosher food imported from Israel and America, study-circles as well as other cultural and religious events. During the last 25-30 years organisations such as WIZO, B'nei Akiva (being the only active youth organisation, in Norway, today), Maccabi Sports Club, B'nai Brith and Keren Kayemet L'Israel have become popular among the Norwegian Jews.

Due to the small number of Jews in Norway, the leadership saw that it was essential to maintain unity and that there should therefore only be one congregation in Oslo (about 950 members) and a smaller community in Trondheim (about 100 members). The policy of the community is to follow Orthodox laws, teachings and traditions. This form is used in the synagogue, classes etc. and for all events within the community. In order for this to work in practice, there is no coercion of members as to regard their own degree of observance, as long as regulations are followed within the confines and institutions of the community.

Part of the revival of the Jewish community, during the last 20 years, has been the introduction of “cantors” from Israel, whose duties include leading synagogue services and teaching. These people come for a couple of years, with their families, and then return to Israel. This arrangement insures an infusion of latest ideas from the Jewish world, especially Israel. During the last decade this has been achieved through successful association with WUJS' (World Union of Jewish Students) project Arevim. Most of the members Jewish Community in Oslo have very strong ties with the State of Israel and the Community encourages a Zionistic ideology.

Oslo Today

With its about 950 members, the Jewish community in Oslo is, today, very active in numerous areas. Among others institutions and activities, there is a kindergarten and a home for the elderly. There is cheider with about 90 children and youth divided into 8-10 classes according to age, which, as well as afternoon classes, also arranges weekend-seminars. There is B'nei Akiva, WIZO and B'nei Brith. There are also study-circles, which deal with Jewish subjects, “Open-House” meetings, where current topics are discussed and family-seminars, where about 40 families go to enjoy a meaningful and fun Shabbat together.

The synagogue is used for services every weekday morning, as well as Shabbat and holidays. As mentioned earlier, the Orthodox traditions are used in conducting the services, which on Shabbat are usually attended by 150-200 men, women and children. The Shabbat-morning service is considered to be the religious and social “event” of the week. After the service, a kiddush is arranged in the community centre, where the rabbi gives a D'var Torah and refreshments are served. On August 23, 2006, Norway opened its Center for Studies of the Holocaust and Religious Minorities, a joint project of the Norwegian government and the country's Jewish community, which will be devoted to the study of the Holocaust and other genocides. The museum and research center are housed in the Villa Grande, which was the residence of Vidkun Quisling, the Nazi collaborator who served as the president of Norway from 1942 until the end of the war. At the war's end, Quisling was tried and executed for treason.

Although the number of births is slightly lower than the number of deaths each year, there is a steady flow of new people coming in from other countries or converting to Judaism. The last couple of years the number of members in the community has increased, mainly because of the active attempt of the community to include the Israeli citizens living in Norway. In previous years, many of these have come to Norway, married a Norwegian spouse, and then kept away from Judaism. Today this situation has changed and many of the Israelis have become active members of the community. It would seem that the number of Jews in Norway (and members of the Jewish community) will remain stable, at least, for the foreseeable future.

As we have seen, throughout this paper, despite the small size of the Jewish community in Oslo, it has developed and expanded rapidly from its creation until today. Being a minority in the otherwise Christian Norway is not always easy, and there will always be anti-Semitic statements or actions to deal with. But, aside from this, the Jewish community in Oslo is very much part of the greater Norwegian community while at the same time keeping its uniqueness.

In May 2016 Norwegian Foreign Minister Borge Brende met with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, and during these meetings he made a point to emphasize to Abbas that aid money coming from Norway was explicitly not to be spent on paying salaries of convicted terrorists. Brende told Abbas that the policy of making financial payments to convicted terrorists and their families that “increased by the length of prisoners' sentences,” is “unnacaptable and should be abolished.” The Palestinian leader assured Brende that Norewgian aid money given to the Palestinian Authority would in fact be spent on “state-building and institutional development.”

Sources: The Jewish Community of Oslo;
“Israel thanks Norway for saying aid won’t go to imprisoned terrorists,” Times of Israel (May 16, 2016);