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Behind the Headlines the Jews of Denmark

Services in the Synagogue in Copenhagen “follows the Orthodox ritual” and all “institutions of the community are conducted in accordance with the strict requirements of Jewish traditional law,” to quote the Synagogue brochure. A smaller congregation (of about 35 families) and described in the Jewish Tourist Guide as “a very observant, Aguda-like community” is also located in Copenhagen.

At least among the large number of men and women who attend the main synagogue, Chief Rabbi Ben Melchior sees contentment with the traditional observances. There is little dissatisfaction, he said, among women at being separated from the men, and participating from the upstairs gallery. More women are attending his Jewish studies classes, however, than was true about a decade ago, he remarked.

We were talking in the small study of his home, an apartment on the fourth floor, high above the bustle of stores and traffic in the busy thoroughfare on which it is located, a few blocks from the Synagogue. The study was dominated by a very large desk and the bookshelves which lined its walls. On one rested several large books of “registrations” of the births, deaths and marriages of the people of the community.

There is no civil registration of these events, Melchior explained, as the custom in Denmark is to have the religious authorities handle these matters. Under any circumstances, Melchior would have such duties for the next several months.

The motion to oust Melchior by a vote of 4-3 by the seven-member board of directors of the Mosaiske Trossamfund (MT), following the June 14 screening of a TV documentary on Jewish life and customs which, it was charged, breached the security of Copenhagen’s Jewish community, had specified that the full effect was not to be realized until 1982. Melchior believes that the passage of even that relatively short time might see developments toward the healing of the rupture. The seven MT directors are elected from among a 20-member council elected by “tax-paying members,” and there has been talk of action in that body, al-though there is no official procedure to form a guide for such action.

PROBLEM OF ASSIMILATION

Melchior has pointed to the rites of passage registry to note that he was in the best position to chart the course of “assimilation” of Jews in Denmark. A few paragraphs on “sociological aspects of the Jewish population” prepared for the Jewish Tourist Guide, not an official publication of the community, contain the statement that intermarriage is as high as four in five “among the younger population.”

“It is more like half and half,” Melchior observed, adding that he has also noticed an increase in the number of such mixed marriages in which the decision is made to give the children a Jewish education, including conversion where necessary.

The still significant rate of assimilation is quickened by the case with which Jews can make the transition to being just Danes. There is almost no anti-Semitism in Denmark, official or otherwise, according to Melchior. Jewish contributions to cultural and academic life in Denmark are welcomed by the general population, and an entire department of Hebraica and Judaica occupies a wing of the Royal Library in Copenhagen.

In such an atmosphere, the struggle becomes even harder to preserve a distinctly Jewish lifestyle, not as a treasured relic, but as a vibrant, on-going community.

EFFORTS TO INSTILL JEWISH IDENTITY

“We will need some infusion of vitality from abroad,” said Uri Yaari, the editor of the monthly magazine published by the official Jewish community, in discussing the situation of Jews in Denmark. He said such a stimulus occured following the immigration of approximately 2,000 Polish Jews to Denmark during the period of 1969-72. Many are now elderly, but their children are in the main hard-working and ambitious, Yaari commented, and many are also active in Jewish as well as academic, cultural and occupational pursuits. They have their own club, whose meeting hall is open daily.

That the Jews of Denmark are making a strong effort to educate and interest their youth Jewishly is apparent from a directory of community organizations, most of which are designed for youngsters, teenagers and young adults. The Scandinavian Jewish Youth Federation headquartered in Copenhagen, is a “roof organization” for 23 member organizations. Established in 1919, it arranges seminars and sports activities as well as issuing publications.

A Danish youth organization plans cultural and social activities for Jews between the ages of 13 and 30, “divided into respective junior and senior groups.” For sports activities, young Jews turn to Hakoah, and it is reported that 300 youngsters participate each week in some aspect of the daily program of football, handball, badminton and table tennis. The society is also “the starting point for the Danish participation in the Maccabiads in Israel,” according to a descriptive brochure.

As the organizations for youth, particularly in sports, try to maintain the precarious balance of general and Jewish interests, efforts are sometimes undercut by Jews themselves. Melchior described his success at getting teams to respect the Sabbath, both in the Jewish leagues and even in scheduling of games between Jewish and non-Jewish teams. And then an Israeli basketball team comes to play in Denmark — and negates the concept by making no objection, and actually playing, on the Sabbath I

Israel, however, is a strong attraction for Jewish concern in Denmark and the land has its Zionist federation, and other international groups, such as B’nei Akiva, again with its concentration on youth. The Kol Torah Organization, which claims a membership of about 50, was organized specifically “to fight the assimilation by organizing study circles and social activities.”

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