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In Iceland, tiny Jewish community has grit, proud energy


Chabad Rabbi Berel Grunblatt puts tefillin on me in Reykjavik’s Eymundsson bookstore. (Courtesy of Rabbi Berel Pewzner)

Time to cross "putting tefillin on in the middle of a crowded Nordic bookshop" off my bucket list.

I arrived in Iceland yesterday and met up with Rabbis Berel Pewzner and Berel Grunblatt about an hour later at a bustling bookstore cafe in central Reykjavik.

Grunblatt, who hails from Argentina, and Pewzner, whose parents run the Chabad house in Harrisburg, Pa., are both part of Chabad’s Roving Rabbis program, which sends young rabbis to remote corners of the Jewish world.

Reykjavik is a small city — slightly larger than Allentown, Pa., and slightly smaller than Hartford, Conn. — that feels part college town, part "Northern Exposure."

Iceland is said to have an impossibly small population of just about 40 Jews, a diverse mix of Americans and Europeans, Israelis and North Africans, Ashkenazim and Sephardim.

But they’ve managed to gather together on-and-off for years for the important events — Passover, the High Holidays, Chanukah, a Tu B’Shebat-esque tree-planting day in a local forest in May, after the ground has thawed.

They’ve done it without a synagogue, without a formal structure of any sort — until Pewzner took interest and began reaching out earlier this year.
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This is Grunblatt’s first time in Iceland, but Pewzner has already visited, leading two seders with another Chabad rabbi in April after having the same thought I did when I got this job — hey, are there any Jews in Iceland?

Pewzner said the energy of those Passover meals convinced him he had to return.

"What happened at the seder was that people were sitting across from each other and saying, ‘Wait, you’re Jewish and you live in Iceland?’ " he recounted. "It was just an incredible scene to see people connect. There was a consensus that we had to do more."

Pewzer and Grunblatt have bigger dreams — a website for the community here, a phone book so Icelandic Jews can better find each other, more regular meet-ups, maybe even a center in Reykjavik in the distant future — but for now, their focus is on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

They believe that the services, to be held in an upmarket hotel just out of Reykjavik’s city center, are the first directly targeting the Icelandic Jewish community. Previously, services were held for Jewish soldiers at the NATO base in nearby Keflavik, but those rabbis — flown in from London — didn’t really reach out to city residents.

The holidays will be a scaled-down version of what you’d expect in the United States — "you don’t want to overwhelm people" — but Pewzner expects about 30 adults and 15 children to participate in the services, which will be held for two hours each Thursday and Friday.

Pewzner said the people of the Reykjavik Jewish community deserve to be commended.

"The proportion of the local Jewish community that is going to take part is probably one of the highest in the world — almost every known Jew is going to participate," he said. "What other country can you say that about?"

Maybe it’s something about Iceland, which seems cold at first but is full of warmth and hospitality — just like its Jewish community.

"On the outwards, it seems like there’s no community. It’s not on anyone’s radar — but underneath there’s that energy and that vibrancy that I found, that excitement that people have for it," he said, smiling. "That’s something very special, something very Icelandic."

So is putting on tefillin in a brightly-lit bookstore in the world’s northernmost capital — and as I walked out of the shop, I was beaming, thinking about how blessed I am to have the chance to start my 5772 in such a profound way.

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