Norway, lying on the northwestern edge of the Scandinavian peninsula, has a Jewish history that likely dates only back to the 16th century. Today, approximately 1,300 Jews live in Norway.
|Learn More - Cities of Norway:
- Early History
- First Jewish Community
- World War II Period
- Modern Oslo
As far back as in the year 1000, the Norwegian king,
Olav den Hellige, forbade everyone who was not Christian to live in
Norway but only in the time of king Christian IV (late 16th century)
do we find specific references to the Jews. The Jews in question were
mainly those who in 1492 and
1498 were driven out of Spain and Portugal. These Sephardi Jews first settled in the Netherlands and in Hamburg. In Norway, these
were called “Portuguese-Jews.” Some of them were given special
permission to enter Norway when no other Jews could. Those who were
still in Norway at the beginning of the 19th century in most cases let
themselves be baptised. The king, Christian IV, thought that the Jews
could be helpful to his country but because of opposition from the clergy,
he had to be satisfied with letting the Jews settle in duchies of Slesvig-Holstein.
Jews had been permitted to live there from 1620. They were now granted
freedom of religion and in 1630 the king gave them permission to travel
freely in Denmark and Norway and also do trade there. The Jews living
in this area were not, as in many other countries, forced to live in
ghettos or in special Jewish streets or wear clothes which would distinguish
them as being Jewish. In 1641, the king extended his “protection”
to include “Aschkenazi-Jews,”
from Eastern-, Central- and part of Western Europe.
King Christian IV's successor, King Fredrik III, was not as liberal
as his predecessor and during his time the Jews in the area once again
lived under strict conditions. They were not allowed to be in the Danish-Norwegian
kingdom without a form of visa . In 1687, when Norway was united with
Denmark under King Christian V's law, the prohibition of Jews entering
the country was reinserted. There was a fine for anyone who broke this
law and a reward for the person who informed against a Jew. About 150
years later, in 1830, the attitude towards Jews was somewhat more lenient
and by 1844 the Justice Department decided that “Portuguese-Jews”
would be permitted to enter freely.
In 1814, Norway acquired its first constitution. This document was
relatively liberal, but in §2 it stated that the official state
religion was Lutheran Protestantism and that Jews and Jesuits were forbidden
from entering the kingdom. The lobbying to change this paragraph was
led by the national poet, Henrik Wergeland. In 1851 the ban was indeed
reversed, six years after the Wergeland's death.
& Development of the First Jewish Community
Following this, Jews in small numbers started arriving to Norway, mainly
from Poland and Lithuania. These were often people who did not have
money to go to America. In June 1892, the first Jewish community was
established in Christiania (now Oslo). The community was first given
the name Det Jødiske Samfund i Christiania (The Jewish Community
in Christiania) but only one year later it was changed to Det Mosaiske
Trossamfund (The Mosaic Community). At this stage there were 214 Jews
in Norway, 136 of them living in Christiania. When the community was
established, it had about 100 members. They decided to keep to the Orthodox
tradition, though most of the members were not very observant with regard
to the Halachic laws.
A few examples of the goals of the community were:
To preserve Jewish interests in Norway.
To gather members for communal synagogue services.
Engage a teacher.
The development of the community continued through
the following years. In 1892, an immigrant from Lithuania was employed
as teacher for the children, cantor, shochet and mohel. The same year,
fixed times for prayers were set and a place was rented to be used as
a synagogue. In 1893 the community
employed a rabbi, Dr. Meyer Ashkanaze, and as the number of members
increased, the synagogue was moved from place to place. During the next
30 years, the number of Jews in Norway increased from 642 persons (343
in Christiania) to 1457 (852 in Christiania) . The immigrants came from
Eastern Europe and the reasons for this great immigration was The First
World War, persecution of Jews and general suffering in Europe.
Between 1900 and 1910 there were four small Jewish communities in Christiania
at the same time. One of them, Israels Menighet i Christiania, Adath
Yeshurun (Israel's Congregation in Christiania, Adath Yeshurun), was
led by the same rabbi Dr. Aschkenaze, who had been the rabbi of Det
Mosaiske Trossamfund (The Mosaic Community) only a few years earlier.
These communities had very small differences concerning ideology and
by 1910 they had merged into one, namely Det Mosaiske Trossamfund. In
1917, yet another congregation was established as a result of dissatisfaction
with the way the bigger congregation was run but by 1939 there was again
only one congregation, Det Mosaiske Trossamfund. This has remained the
situation until today. About 3/4 of the approximately 2000 Norwegian
Jews, were affiliated to this community in Oslo, or the smaller community,
which had been established in Trondheim. The Jewish population, in Norway,
has never exceeded this number.
Between 1915 and 1940, Jewish
cultural life in Oslo blossomed. Several
competing theatrical groups, performing
in Yiddish, choirs, cultural organisations
(also in Yiddish) as well as academic organisations
were established. In 1910 the Jewish Youth
Association was established, becoming the
most active and important organisation within
the Jewish community. During the years 1935-1940,
a number of study-circles were held, led
by the community's rabbi, Isak Julius Samuel.
In 1942, the rabbi was deported and killed
by the Nazis.
World War I &
the Reestablishment of the Community
In 1940, the Germans occupied Norway. Norwegian newspapers
and media were full of anti-Semitic propaganda and the Norwegian government was taken over by Nazis (Quisling). Two years later, in 1942, 750 Jews were deported to Auschwitz.
Of these, only 25 survived. The remainder of the Norwegian Jewry managed
to escape to Sweden, where they
lived as refugees until the end of the war. Over 100 Jews served in
the Free Norwegian Forces, mostly stationed in Britain.
After the end of the war, in 1945, when some of the
refugees returned, the Jewish community in Oslo was re-established.
They found the synagogue in Oslo unharmed, miraculously. It had been
used as a storage place for Nazi-literature and confiscated Jewish belongings
during the war. Even the Torah Scrolls were still there, unharmed. The
synagogue could, therefore, be used again as soon as it was cleaned
up. The new rabbi of the community was Rabbi Zalman Aronzon. However,
the level of activity, at the time, was much lower than before the war
and there were long periods without a rabbi, limited teaching capability
and little spiritual leadership. In 1947 the Norwegian government permitted
the immigration of several hundred Jewish refugees, mostly from Hungary.
In 1960, a community centre was built next to the synagogue.
In the late 1970's a serious revival of the community
began, with the appointment of a new, young rabbi, Michael Melchior
and a new leadership. The rabbi made many changes in the education system.
Besides from intensifying the intellectual challenge of the studying,
he also tried to build on the principle that “Jewish culture should
not merely be learnt but also lived.” The “classroom-education”
was extended to include obligatory weekend-seminars and camps, which
would let the children actually experience what they were learning.
Since then, many institutions have been established: kindergarten, well-attended
synagogue services, Cheider (afternoon classes) for all school children,
aged-home, a supply of kosher food imported from Israel and America,
study-circles as well as other cultural and religious events. During
the last 25-30 years organisations such as WIZO, B'nei Akiva (being
the only active youth organisation, in Norway, today), Maccabi Sports
Club, B'nai Brith and Keren Kayemet L'Israel have become popular among
the Norwegian Jews.
Due to the small number of Jews in Norway, the leadership
saw that it was essential to maintain unity and that there should therefore
only be one congregation in Oslo (about 950 members) and a smaller community
in Trondheim (about 100 members). The policy of the community is to
follow Orthodox laws, teachings
and traditions. This form is used in the synagogue, classes etc. and
for all events within the community. In order for this to work in practice,
there is no coercion of members as to regard their own degree of observance,
as long as regulations are followed within the confines and institutions
of the community.
Part of the revival of the Jewish community, during the last 20 years,
has been the introduction of “cantors” from Israel, whose
duties include leading synagogue services and teaching. These people
come for a couple of years, with their families, and then return to
Israel. This arrangement insures an infusion of latest ideas from the
Jewish world, especially Israel. During the last decade this has been
achieved through successful association with WUJS' (World Union of Jewish
Students) project Arevim. Most of the members Jewish Community in Oslo
have very strong ties with the State of Israel and the Community encourages
a Zionistic ideology.
With its about 950 members, the Jewish community in
Oslo is, today, very active in numerous areas. Among others institutions
and activities, there is a kindergarten and a home for the elderly.
There is cheider with about 90 children and youth divided into 8-10
classes according to age, which, as well as afternoon classes, also
arranges weekend-seminars. There is B'nei Akiva, WIZO and B'nei Brith.
There are also study-circles, which deal with Jewish subjects, “Open-House”
meetings, where current topics are discussed and family-seminars, where
about 40 families go to enjoy a meaningful and fun Shabbat together.
synagogue is used for services every weekday morning, as well as Shabbat
and holidays. As mentioned earlier, the Orthodox traditions are used in
conducting the services, which on Shabbat are usually attended by 150-200
men, women and children. The Shabbat-morning service is considered to
be the religious and social “event” of the week. After the service,
a kiddush is arranged in the community centre, where the rabbi gives a
D'var Torah and refreshments are served. On August 23, 2006, Norway opened its Center for Studies of the Holocaust and Religious Minorities, a joint project of the Norwegian government and the country's Jewish community, which will be devoted to the study of the Holocaust and other genocides. The museum and research center are housed in the Villa Grande, which was the residence of Vidkun Quisling, the Nazi collaborator who served as the president of Norway from 1942 until the end of the war. At the war's end, Quisling was tried and executed for treason.
Although the number of births is slightly lower than
the number of deaths each year, there is a steady flow of new people coming
in from other countries or converting to Judaism. The last couple of
years the number of members in the community has increased, mainly because
of the active attempt of the community to include the Israeli citizens
living in Norway. In previous years, many of these have come to Norway,
married a Norwegian spouse, and then kept away from Judaism.
Today this situation has changed and many of the Israelis have become
active members of the community. It would seem that the number of Jews
in Norway (and members of the Jewish community) will remain stable,
at least, for the foreseeable future.
As we have seen, throughout this paper, despite the
small size of the Jewish community in Oslo, it has developed and expanded
rapidly from its creation until today. Being a minority in the otherwise
Christian Norway is not always easy, and there will always be anti-Semitic
statements or actions to deal with. But, aside from this, the Jewish
community in Oslo is very much part of the greater Norwegian community
while at the same time keeping its uniqueness.
In May 2016 Norwegian Foreign Minister Borge Brende met with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, and during these meetings he made a point to emphasize to Abbas that aid money coming from Norway was explicitly not to be spent on paying salaries of convicted terrorists. Brende told Abbas that the policy of making financial payments to convicted terrorists and their families that “increased by the length of prisoners' sentences,” is “unnacaptable and should be abolished.” The Palestinian leader assured Brende that Norewgian aid money given to the Palestinian Authority would in fact be spent on “state-building and institutional development.”
Jewish Community of Oslo;
“Israel thanks Norway for saying aid won’t go to imprisoned terrorists,” Times of Israel (May 16, 2016);