NEW YORK (Sep. 23)
The dramatic story of how an isolated European Jewish community, without a rabbi for more than 20 years, bounced back from the Holocaust with the aid of the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture and the local community, came to light recently, according to a report by the Foundation.
From 1958 to 1980, Oslo, Norway, functioned without a rabbi. It fell upon Michael Melchior, the eldest son of a Danish family counting six generations of rabbis, to rekindle Jewish life in one of world Jewry’s loneliest outposts. There are some 900 Jews in Norway, almost all of them in Oslo, of a population of 4.115 million.
Trained in Israel with the help of the Foundation and the Oslo community, Rabbi Melchior opened the first kindergarten in Oslo since the Holocaust and revitalized the afternoon schools, which teach children from ages 7 through 13. In 1979, there were 39 children receiving religious instruction at the Jewish Community Center in Oslo. The number for 1985 is 68.
Melchior has reactivated the youth groups. Teenagers study Jewish history, Zionism and religious texts. More than 80 percent of all Jewish youth are now being reached.
WORKING WITH CHILDREN
Herman Kahan, vice president of the Oslo Jewish Community, describes one way in which Melchior works with children:
“Expectant faces wait every Friday for the weekly appearance of ‘Michael,’ as they call him. One week, he appears as a pirate; the next, an expectant mother. His imaginative disguises inspire the children to listen to his words and appreciate Shabbat as something very special. And special it is for the children who bake challah, say kiddush and light the Shabbat candles every week. Basic elements of Hebrew are taught in the Jewish kindergarten; and every 17th of May, the Norwegian national holiday, the children march under their own banner in a children’s parade.
Through the children’s choir that Melchior initiated, he has also brought new life and increased attendance at the synagogue, bringing into the synagogue’s orbit much of the community’s youth and many young couples as well.
Adult education has also been a focus of Melchior. A large number of workshops have been organized under his leadership with study groups in Pirkey Avot, Jewish thought, and Jewish holidays. Melchior’s wife, Hannah, has taught classes for potential converts.
KOSHER FOOD CENTER ESTABLISHED
Melchior was instrumental in establishing the Kosher Food Center, a grocery which at the time of its opening in November 1981 had the largest selection of kosher foods in Europe. Since 1982, the Center has provided food amounting to $30,000 each year to the Jews in Poland. This enterprise has come about thanks to an agreement with Norway’s Church Relief Society (Kirkensnodhjelp).
In addressing the larger concerns of the Jewish community, Melchior interprets Judaism and the Jewish community to the Christian community through regular contacts with churches, universities, schools and service groups.
One of Melchior’s greatest achievements is the creation of the Norwegian Council of Soviet Jewry, in which he serves as co-chairman with Christopher Gjotterud, Professor of Physics at the University of Oslo. The Council has been very successful in raising the issue of Soviet Jewry at the highest level of government in Norway.
At the end of this year, Melchior will make aliya. The Oslo Jewish leaders have come up with a plan which will be put into action next year.
Melchior will commit himself to reside in Oslo for four months of every year — including the High Holy Days — and will receive a salary which covers his year’s expenses. This solution will enable him to continue his studies in Israel the rest of the year.
The help that the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture has provided Melchior is in line with the emphasis the Foundation is placing on service to dispersed Jewish communities — communities that are isolated both from Jewish life and from other Jewish communities.