Iceland, an island nation located in northeast Europe, does not have a very rich history of Jewish culture. It is estimated that there are currently 250 Jews living in Iceland, mostly residing in the capital city of Reykjavik.
It is widely assumed that the first Jews to travel to Iceland were traders and merchants who arrived as early as 1625. Most of these merchants came from Denmark, and trade continued during the 18th and 19th centuries. Native Icelanders owned most of the trading businesses, but a small number of wholesale firms in Iceland were owned by Danish Jews.
Few Jews lived in Iceland at this time. During the period of Western emancipation, there was no economic or personal incentive for Jews to immigrate to Iceland. It was a country where the practice of a non-Christian faith was not tolerated. Jewish immigration to Iceland did not really begin until the mid-1930s, when Jewish refugees from Europe began arriving in the country.The term for Jew in the Icelandic language is Gyoingar, and most Icelanders only knew of the Jews from the Bible. The term Gyoingar still holds negative connotations today.
The first Jew to be recorded in Icelandic annals was Daniel Salomon, a Polish man who resided in Denmark. However, when he arrived in Iceland in 1625, he was no longer a Jew. He converted to Christianity in Copenhagen and changed his name to Johannes Salomon just a few years prior.
The first Jewish ship, named the Ulricha, arrived in Iceland in 1815. The ship belonged to a Danish merchant, Ruben Moses Henriques, who sold hats, fabrics, and paper.
On April 5, 1850, the Danish King implemented a law that allowed foreign Jews to settle in Denmark. In 1853, the King requested that Iceland, too, implement this law, but the Icelandic parliament, the Althing, rejected this request. Two years later, the parliament overturned the original decision, and chose to implement the law. There is no documentation, however, of any Jews permanently settling in Iceland at this time.
As the first practicing Jew recorded in Icelandic annals, Max Nordau was a physician as well as journalist from Pest, Hungary who first came to Iceland in 1874 to cover the celebration commemorating the country’s millennium anniversary. Nordau was known at the time for his Zionist affiliations.
In 1906, a young merchant from Copenhagen, Fritz Heymann Nathan, arrived in Iceland, and became the first practicing Jew to settle there. His company, Nathan & Olsen, became one of the largest and most successful businesses at the time. However, the absence of any Jewish culture in Iceland greatly bothered Nathan, and after marrying in 1917, he decided it was impossible to live a Jewish life in Iceland with his family. After the completion of the first five-story building in Reykjavik, he left Iceland and returned to Copenhagen.
In November 1937, C.A.C. Brun, the first secretary of the Danish legation in Reykjavik, met with the Icelandic Prime Minister, Hermann Jonasson to discuss the plight of a Jewish family that was threatened with expulsion. In his diary, Brun exclaimed, “Iceland has always been a pure Nordic country, free of Jews.” This view echoed the sentiments of many other Icelanders at the time.
In 1938, after Denmark closed its doors to Austrian Jews, Iceland soon followed suit. Several Jews were expelled from Iceland during this time. Throughout the late 1930s, Icelanders became increasingly hostile to Jews living within their borders, and the few Jews who resided there were very poorly treated. Anti-Semitic trends could be seen in many aspects of Icelandic society. In 1939, a report written for the Aid Association of German Jews concluded that refuge in Iceland to escape Nazi Germany was impossible.
It was not until 1940, when British forces arrived in Iceland with some Jewish soldiers included among their ranks, that the first official congregation was established in Reykjavik. A service was held in 1940 that included 25 servicemen from Britain, Canada, and Scotland on Yom Kippur in a lodge that belonged to the Good Templars. They used a borrowed Torah scroll, the only one available in Reykjavik, and had two prayer shawls and one skullcap. This service was the first non-Christian religious ceremony to take place in Iceland in 940 years, since the nation officially embraced Christianity in the year 1000.
Jewish life became much more active after the arrival of American troops to Iceland in 1941-1942. An American rabbi arrived in the country in late 1941, and a few years later, in 1944, there were 500 Jews present at a Rosh Hashanah service that took place at Naval Air Station Keflavik with a Torah scroll flown in from the United States.
In 1944, about 2,000 Jewish servicemen were stationed in Iceland. A rabbi was present in Keflavik for a few years after 1944, and two Jewish congregations existed until the mid-1950s.
According to Iceland’s Statistical Bureau, there were only 9 Jews in Iceland in 1945.
Iceland officially became independent in 1944.
Judaism is not among Iceland's recognized state religions, so funding for the community is hard to come by and official status recognition for the small community is not in the foreseeable future.
Of the small number of Jews who remained in Iceland after World War II, many preferred to keep a low profile, and not call too much attention to themselves or their Jewish faith. Almost all adopted Icelandic names, and shed their Jewish identity altogether and adopted an Icelandic one.
After author and journalist Alfred Joachim Fischer visited Iceland in 1955, he wrote an account of Jewish life in the country. Fischer himself was a Jewish German refugee who settled in London and Berlin. In his writings, Fischer described the first Yom Kippur service of 1940, and also noted that most Jews who had settled in Iceland had taken Icelandic names.
The Jewish community that exists in Iceland today is extremely small and has generally liked to go unnoticed, though signs of Jewish identity in public are begining to emerge. Of the roughly 300,000 people who live in Iceland, it is believed that no more than 250 are Jewish, nearly all of whom live in Reykjavik. Most of Iceland’s Jews are Israeli, European or American immigrants who are married to native Icelanders; there are only a handful of fully Jewish couples in the country.
Religious observance is very minimal, though the Jewish community tries to gather together in Reykjavik on the Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Passover. These get-togethers are coordinated by Mike Levin, an American immigrant and the Jewish community’s unofficial spokesman.
I have two kids, and I wanted them to have some sort of Jewish experience, he explains.
In 2011, Rabbi Berel Pewzner, a Chabad emissary, made a trip to Reykjavik to organize a Passover seder.
It was the first kosher seder ever held in Iceland, and we had more than 50 people join us, Pewzner recounted. Encouraged by the response, he returned in September 2011 to organize services and meals for the High Holy Days.
We had our first minyan here since World War II, and for many of those who came, it was first time they ever heard a shofar.
Most Icelanders do not have a strong Jewish identity, and some have kept their Jewish faith a secret from their children. Many took Icelandic names in the mid-1950s and prefer to assimilate because of the strong anti-Semitic climate that has resonated throughout the years in Iceland. Judaism is not officially recognized as a religion in Iceland, but that is mainly because the Jewish community wants it that way. Though official recognition would enable the community to obtain government funding that could allow them to build a synagogue or purchase a Torah scroll, the majority of Jews on the island are satisfied with not recognizing themselves as Jewish.
The most prominent Jew in Iceland, however, is the former First Lady, Dorrit Moussaieff, wife of former President Olafur Ragnar Grimsson, whom she wed in 2003. She was born in Jerusalem to a wealthy Bukharian Jewish family. Although she is secular, she is well known among Icelanders for bringing a positive view of Judaism to their country even though the Jewish community on the island says she has never reached out to them.
A Jewish congregation first established at the American NATO base in Keflavik during WWII is still active, but, until 2018, Reykjavik was Europe’s last major city without a synagogue or resident rabbi. Iceland's first permanent rabbi, Avi Feldman, arrived in the country with his family in April 2018. The Chabad Jewish center opened and operated by Feldman is the country’s first ever official Jewish presence and, when the planned synagogue is completed, it will be the country’s first Jewish house of worship. The first permanent Torah scroll in Iceland was completed in February 2020 and brought to the Chabad.
In 2018, the ADL raised concerns about a proposed ban on circumcision, arguing it would infringe on religious freedom. The group also fears it could set a precedent in Europe and, in a letter to the Icelandic parliament, warned it would “make Iceland a darling of neo-Nazis and other anti-Semitic bigots, who would see that decision as a step to making Iceland judenrein, free of Jews.”
Sources: Cnaan Lipshitz,
Iceland welcomes its first rabbi while considering a ban on circumcision, JTA, (April 5, 2018);
Reykjavik, Iceland: The Last European Capital Without a Rabbi Gets One, Chabad.org, (February 11, 2018);
Iceland Jews Are Left Out in the Cold, Haaretz, (December 23, 2011);
Jewish Center for Public Affairs;
Thesis published on the internet by Icelandic historian Snorri G. Bergsson, The Reykjavik Grapevine;
“European Anti-Semitism: Trends to Watch in 9 Countries in 2018,” ADL, (March 29, 2018);
Marcy Oster, “Iceland welcomes its first permanent Torah scroll,” JTA, (February 17, 2020).