REYKJAVIK, Iceland (JTA) — For Mike Levin, a native of Chicago, it took a move to Iceland to turn him into a Jewish leader.
More than 25 years ago, Levin met an Icelandic woman while both were studying music at a university in Vienna. They married soon after, moved to Reykjavik and had two children. Levin runs a catering service in Iceland’s capital and largest city.
In Chicago, Levin occasionally had filled in for the cantor at his local synagogue, but beyond that his Jewish leadership experience was limited. Now he is the de facto head of Iceland’s tiny Jewish community, which numbers just a few dozen people in a country of some 320,000.
"I sometimes have thought that hey, this is kind of weird,” Levin, 50, told JTA in an interview. “You can’t even get matzah in Iceland or kosher wine.”
Had he stayed in Illinois, Levin says it’s unlikely he would be involved in Jewish life to the degree he is in Iceland. Here he organizes holiday celebrations, leads the occasional service with the community’s paper Torah scroll and coordinates practical affairs for the country’s Jews, such as symbolic bar mitzvahs and the rare Jewish funeral.
In the contemporary experience, Jews from large Jewish communities sometimes find their place in the Jewish constellation after a trip to or a few decades of living in a far-flung place. In this case it happened in a country with no synagogue, no Jewish community center and no Jewish organization. Judaism is not even one of Iceland’s state-recognized religions.
For Levin, as for many Jews, a big part of the motive for becoming active in Jewish community was for his children — a 17-year-old daughter and a 15-year-old son.
"I wanted them to know what Judaism was, to participate, to know more than what they hear in the schoolyard," he said. "My daughter doesn’t have the traditional Icelandic Christian upbringing, but she doesn’t have a real Jewish identity either — she’s sort of stranded somewhere in the middle."
Over the years in Iceland, Levin, who doesn’t keep kosher or wear a yarmulke, says he has come to realize that he sometimes underestimates his place on the spectrum of Jewish knowledge and action.
"There was once a woman who brought bread to the seder,” he recalled.
When there was no matzah in the country to buy for the seder, Levin baked his own.
"The things we’ve been able to do," he said, his voice trailing off. "Sometimes I think, oh wow, it’s good that I know these things because otherwise we’d be worse off."
Even Iceland’s most famous Jew — President Olafur Ragnur Grimsson’s Israeli-born wife Dorrit Moussaieff — doesn’t participate in Jewish communal events.
Sigal Har-Meshi, an Israeli who has lived in Reykjavik for seven years and does volunteer Jewish work, praises Levin’s leadership of prayer services.
"He’s singing just like in Israel,” she said.
Over the past few months, Levin says he’s been helped greatly in his Jewish work by Rabbi Berel Pewzner, a Chabad emissary who has begun to come to Iceland to strengthen its Jewish community. In April, Pewzner led two Passover seders here, and last month he coordinated High Holidays services.
Levin says that in the past, new Jewish arrivals to Iceland have been anxious to become involved before discovering the lack of Jewish resources and growing disappointed and dispirited.
"Sometimes people come and they’re really gung-ho, and then they realize how little there is Iceland," he said. "In the end you can’t fight it. It’s just overwhelming."
Pewzner calls Levin an important resource for Iceland’s Jews — and a warm, friendly public face for the community.
"He has a big heart. He has a good laugh, a nice laugh — he makes people feel comfortable," the rabbi said.
In their hometowns, Pewzner says, Jews like Levin may not have played such an active, crucial role, "but because they are here, they’re keeping things going."
Despite the many hats he has worn for the Jewish community over the years, Levin says he’s not ready to officially lead the community if a campaign to get Judaism recognized by the Icelandic government ever comes to fruition.
Har-Meshi says the Jewish community of Iceland owes its very existence to Levin’s hard work.
"Everything is because of him," she said. "He’s never given up."