How moving to Denmark strengthened my Jewish identity

Growing up, one of my favorite books was “Number the Stars,” Lois Lowry’s middle-grade novel about Denmark’s effort to smuggle its Jewish citizens into Sweden during World War II. The operation, which saved 7,220 of Denmark’s 7,800 Jews, has been remarkable to me since I first read about it: while other European countries gave in to anti-Semitic propaganda and followed Hitler’s rule, Denmark resisted. A common explanation today is that the Danes did not see their Jewish neighbors as “other”, they were as Danish as anyone else. Why wouldn’t they help their partner Danskere?

Almost 80 years after the rescue of the Danish Jews, I moved to Copenhagen for postgraduate studies. Today, Denmark’s Jewish population is around 6,000 members, most of whom are congregated in the greater Copenhagen area. Coming from the Boston area, which is home to 248,000 Jews, and having attended Brandeis University, a historically Jewish university known for its robust Jewish population, landing in a country with such a small Jewish population was a huge adjustment. But to my surprise, I preferred it.

Growing up, my family attended a Reform synagogue, went to Jewish summer camp and Hebrew school, and had a bat mitzvah, but all the time, I felt like I was just doing the moves. At no point did I feel any kind of Jewish community, nor did I feel the need for one. Many of my friends and teachers were Jewish, my classmates knew about Jewish holidays, and there is no shortage of Jewish delis and Judaica stores in Greater Boston. Being Jewish was not something I consciously thought about because it was very normalized in my environment.

But in Denmark, I am often the first Jewish person someone knows (knowingly). The Evangelical Lutheran Church is the national religion, but Denmark is generally an extremely atheistic country, and most people do not participate in any form of religious life. Here, I had to make an effort to meet other Jews, and in doing so, I found an amazing Jewish community.

Despite Denmark’s small Jewish population, there is an official Jewish community, Det Jødiske Samfund, a Jewish museum, an Orthodox synagogue, a Reformed synagogue, a Chabad house, a Jewish primary school, youth groups, and an annual cultural festival. . There is even a Jewish-Muslim motorcycle club (yes, you read that right) that works to combat anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in Denmark and create mutual understanding between the two religious minorities. And this year, Copenhagen will host a gathering of young Jews from all over Scandinavia. Whether it is the services at the Reformation synagogue, the baking of challah at Chabad, or the Shabbat dinner with the Jewish youth movement at the Great Synagogue, I am never short of Jewish events to attend.

A STREET SCENE in Copenhagen. (credit: HOWARD BLAS)

I appreciate that the community is not strictly divided by denomination; I see the same familiar faces no matter what synagogue or organization I go to. While I never felt like I had found my place in Greater Boston’s fragmented Jewish population, I immediately felt welcome in Jewish Denmark. When we are such a small minority (only 0.1% of the population), the need for a community is more urgent. Deliberately seeking out Jewish life has made the connections I have forged even more special. Danish society is notoriously difficult for foreigners to integrate, but through the Jewish community I have been able to make Copenhagen feel like home.

Of course, this is not to say that being Jewish in Denmark is always idyllic. In 2014, the Jewish school was vandalized and in 2015 a terrorist attacked the Great Synagogue. I have not personally experienced anti-Semitism here, but I know that my experience as a recent transplant is different from that of Danish Jews who have spent their lives here, and those who present themselves more clearly as Jews. That being said, I still feel significantly safer as a Jew here than I do in the US (I still haven’t heard a Dane compare vaccines to the Holocaust, baruch hashem).

I still think aboutNumber the stars ”often, especially when I am in the same synagogue that the Jewish characters attended, or when I pass a site mentioned in the book. I have no Danish heritage, so I am not personally involved in the rescue of Danish Jews. But, silly as it may sound, I feel a sense of poetic beauty as I find a Jewish home in the same small Scandinavian country that came together to save thousands of us so many years ago.

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