Bent Lexner lives in a row of modest but stately apartments overlooking Østerport Station in the eastern part of Copenhagen. Denmark’s chief rabbi since 1996, Lexner was rushed on Thursday morning, cutting short an early interview because of a death in the community. Danish Jews can barely spare a soul. Only about 2,000 of them are members of the Jewish community. And, depending on how you count, there are perhaps as many as 8 or 10 thousand more. No one really knows.
Lexner ministers to a population well integrated into one of the world’s most secular cultures, a group that overwhelmingly does not share his Orthodox practice and intermarries at an impressive clip. All of which has led Lexner to adopt a more pragmatic posture than many of his Orthodox colleagues elsewhere. He counsels couples facing the prospect of an intermarried son or daughter not to pressure too much, not to cut ties, and certainly not to sit shiva if the marriage goes ahead. Children are admitted to the Jewish day school even if they are not halachically Jewish, though the expectation is that eventually a conversion will take place under Orthodox auspices. Thursday, I asked the community president, Finn Schwarz, if conversion was obligatory.
"You’re in Denmark. We don’t have requirements," Schwarz told me. "We have a common understanding."
Denmark’s Jews are disappearing — perhaps not entirely, not as individuals. But as a distinct religious subgroup, it’s increasingly hard to see how the community can persist much longer in anything other than a highly truncated form. In the middle decades of the 20th century, the community had about twice as many members as it has now. Lexner predicts that in 50 years the community will be "very, very small," and really more of a "friendship club" than a religious community. WIll a friendship club be able to sustain a chief rabbi, a functioning daily synagogue, a school, and two nursing homes?
In a sense, Danish Jews are victims of their own good fortune. Virtually alone among European countries, Denmark has been remarkably welcoming and protective of its Jewish minority. Nearly all of its Jews survived the Holocaust and the country has been, by European standards, markedly free of anti-Semitism. As a result, Jews have done exceptionally well here, becoming leaders of industry and the professions, and rising to high government office. But that degree of openness has exacted its price, and the consequence may be the dissolution of a community with nearly 400 years of history.
You get a sense of some of that history at the Danish Jewish Museum, a typical Daniel Libeskind concoction with slanted floors and disorienting corridors that makes you feel slightly off kilter. It’s an effect that works well in Berlin and Osnabrück, where the museums in question are meant to illustrate the discontinuity and anxiety wrought by the Nazis.
But Danish Jewish history is astonishingly uncorrupted by the sort of ruptures that beset other European Jewish communities. The museum is appropriately modest in size, but its display cases tell the story of a community embracing of its Danish-ness even as it absorbed successive waves of immigrants fleeing oppression in the East. Absent those waves, the friendship club of Lexner’s imagination would likely have already come to pass.
It’s rather depressing to contemplate — and not only because the end of anything is always a little bit (and sometimes a lot) sad. But also because it seems to confirm several facts about the modern Jewish experience that I’d prefer to deny — that in the absence of anti-Semitism, Jews will willingly surrender their identity en masse; that only the Orthodox have the commitment to ensure Jewish life survives; and that the Orthodox, insistent on living in communities well insulated with droves of others like them, will largely abandon places like Denmark — as they largely have, for Israel, London or elsewhere. Lexner has three children, all of whom live in Israel.
The Danish lesson would seem to be this: In a peaceful, prosperous, tolerant, stable, democratic, liberal, bike-loving country — absent throngs of other Jews — Jewish life will wither.
LIke I said, it’s rather depressing.