fbpx
Saturday, October 31, 2020

Their Own Lockdown: How Swedish Jews Are Dealing With the Country’s Lax Coronavirus Policy

Print This Article

(JTA) — Face masks are a rare sight in Sweden.

That’s because the country has taken one of the least restrictive approaches to the coronavirus pandemic in the world. As most of Europe has been on lockdown, Swedes have been going to school, shopping and gathering in restaurants and bars with minimal restrictions.

Some have praised the lax Swedish policy for lessening the economic toll of the virus, while others point out that it has led to a death toll significantly higher than those of neighboring countries.

Even as life goes on largely as usual, things have changed significantly for members of the country’s small Jewish community. Here are some of the ways.

Their own lockdown

Restaurants and other establishments are remaining open during the pandemic in Stockholm, May 8, 2020. (Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP via Getty Images)

The community, which numbers about 15,000 in a country of 10 million, has been treating the situation “like a crisis” since the pandemic first hit, said community leader Aron Verständig.

Most institutions have been closed since the middle of March after the community received information that those who had been diagnosed with the coronavirus had attended services in at least one of Stockholm’s three synagogues.

“Our rabbis said that from a halakhic perspective, you can’t have services if it means risking people’s lives,” said Verständig, who serves both as chairman of Stockholm’s Jewish community and as president of the Council of Swedish Jewish Communities.

Later that month, the community saw the impact of the deadly virus firsthand when it spread to Stockholm’s Jewish nursing home and elsewhere in the community, killing 17 in a short period of time.

Still, local Jews, like many other Swedes, have been largely positive in their views of the government’s response to the pandemic.

“Of course there is a bit of internal criticism in Sweden, but I would say that when I speak with people, both Jews and non-Jews, almost everyone thinks Sweden in large part is doing the right thing,” Verständig said.

Big losses

Restaurants and other establishments are remaining open during the pandemic in Stockholm, May 8, 2020. (Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP via Getty Images)

Despite acting quickly, the community hasn’t escaped harm. Among the 17 deaths in Stockholm’s tight-knit community at the end of March and beginning of April, most were residents of the Jewish nursing home.

The community of about 4,500 was left scrambling to bury the victims. The city’s Jewish burial society, or chevra kadisha, was not large enough to take on so many burials in a short span, and many members of the group were themselves older and at risk.

But that changed after Verständig put out a call for young volunteers.

“A lot of people stepped up and helped out,” he said.

Though the nursing home, which continues to be on lockdown, hasn’t seen any new cases since the beginning of April, the loss hit the community hard — especially as many of the victims were Holocaust survivors.

Verständig believes there were no more than 100 Holocaust survivors in Stockholm left prior to COVID-19, but 10 or 11 died in the nursing home.

“There were few Holocaust survivors left, but now we’ve lost a relatively big part of them,” Verständig said.

A synagogue closes for the first time

Rabbi Ute Steyer has been leading services for Stockholm’s Jews on Zoom. (Courtesy of Steyer).

For the first time in its history, Stockholm’s main synagogue is not holding any in-person services. Even during the violence and chaos of World War II, Jews gathered there regularly.

“During the synagogue’s 150 years of existence, we’ve never had to cancel services. It’s never happened,” said Rabbi Ute Steyer said.

Steyer has been organizing services on Zoom, and has been happy to see people who don’t regularly come to synagogue sign on.

“We’re starting to get into some kind of routine,” she said. “There are surprisingly many who are choosing to log on. I wasn’t expecting that.”

Still, she has plenty of challenges to deal with going forward. About 10 bar and bat mitzvahs have been postponed, and Steyer is trying to figure out how the kids will be able to celebrate their coming-of-age ceremonies as the synagogue reopens. Conversions and circumcisions may have to wait until the end of the pandemic. That’s all besides the grief that the tight-knit congregation is feeling.

“Everyone knows everyone. Everyone is related to everyone in some way,” the rabbi said. “So if someone has lost someone due to the coronavirus, everyone immediately knows about that, and who this person was and who his or her family was.”

The country’s only Jewish camp is closed for the summer

Kids do a range of typical camp activities, including boating, at Glämsta. (Courtesy of Glämsta)

Every summer, hundreds of young Scandinavian Jews head out to Glämsta, a 111-year-old summer camp located in Stockholm’s archipelago. They sing, play sports, go sailing and stay up late talking to old friends.

But Glämsta is more than just a summer of fun and games. For many kids who live outside of Stockholm, it is the only time of the year they are surrounded by other young Jews and learn about their heritage.

In April, the Jewish community in Stockholm decided to cancel this year’s sessions due to the pandemic.

“Everyone is heartbroken and thinks it’s very, very sad. Many describe Glämsta as the most important Jewish institution to pass on yiddishkeit from generation to generation,” said camp director David Lejbowicz, who recently received a phone call from a mother who was in tears over the cancellation.

Still, the community won’t be completely without camp this summer. Lejbowicz is organizing a day camp in lieu of the regular sleepaway camp. Though the program will only be open to those residing in Sweden’s capital, more than 90 kids have already registered to attend.

“There’s a new spark [of hope] of hope because now there’s something positive, a positive goal,” he said.

Jewish school is still in session and people are happy about it

Sweden’s Prime Minister Stefan Lofven speaks during a press briefing on the coronavirus pandemic situation, in Stockholm, Sweden, May 13, 2020. (Pontus Lundahl/TT News Agency /AFP via Getty Images)

Like elementary and middle schools throughout Sweden, Stockholm’s Jewish school is still open. The Hillel School — which goes from nursery school to sixth grade and has nearly 400 students — has nixed large events, implemented student social distancing and is encouraging frequent hand washing, but otherwise is operating mostly as usual.

“The response has been very appreciative,” principal Kim Lichtenstein said. “From students who really don’t want to go to school during summer break or on the weekends, to parents who have been able to continue working, to the staff. Everyone has reacted positively about what we have done, really.”

Still, during a few weeks in the middle of March through the beginning of April, as the coronavirus hit Stockholm’s Jewish community, about half the staff and a third of students were absent. Some were sick or had sick family members, while others were scared to go to school.

“It was very different,” Lichtenstein said. “In some classes, there were three out of 20 students present.”

The city’s only kosher store remains open, but its owner is worried

People walk along a crowded street in Stockholm, April 1, 2020. (Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP via Getty Images)

The 200-300 households that keep kosher in Stockholm rely on Kosherian for buying meat and other delicacies. The store, which is housed in the city’s newly built Jewish community center in the trendy Östermalm neighborhood, is also popular among less observant Jews for its small Judaica collection and assortment of Israeli hummus and snacks.

Though the store is typically a place for socializing, things look different now — only one person is allowed to enter the store at a time.

“People usually want to stay and be social and talk. Now we’re trying to get them to shop, pay and leave,” said co-owner Benny Rung, who himself was hospitalized in April with the coronavirus.

Since kosher slaughter is illegal in Sweden, Rung imports all his meat, and he worries that the coronavirus will threaten his supply.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty,” he said.

A Jewish educational institute has gone virtual

Stockholm is home to Paideia — The European Institute for Jewish Studies in Sweden. The organization offers a number of programs for adults in Jewish studies, culture, Hebrew and Yiddish, as well as a government-funded general education program with a focus in religion and politics.

The institute decided to go virtual in the middle of March. Though there were initially some technical challenges, teachers and students have adapted in creative ways.

For example, a Jewish folk dance class is meeting virtually, and students can choose to dance along with the instructor or just watch as the instructor demonstrates new dances.

An introduction to Judaism class had a field trip planned to the synagogue, where students would attend Shabbat services and then attend a Friday night dinner. Instead, students watched from their computer as the teacher and her husband made a makeshift Shabbat dinner on a weeknight to demonstrate what it typically looks like.

The virtual classes have been a success with students, said Mina Szpiro, the institute’s education coordinator.

“Many are so happy and grateful that they can still get the intellectual stimulation and that they can continue with the course and continue being social with others,” she said.

Did you enjoy this article?

You'll love our roundtable.

Enjoyed this article?

You'll love our roundtable.

Select list(s) to subscribe to


By submitting this form, you are consenting to receive marketing emails from: Jewish Journal, 3250 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA, 90010, http://www.jewishjournal.com. You can revoke your consent to receive emails at any time by using the SafeUnsubscribe® link, found at the bottom of every email. Emails are serviced by Constant Contact

Latest Articles

38th World Zionist Congress Bridges Partisan Divide, Despite Initial Divisions

(October 30, 2020 / JNS) The 38th World Zionist Congress concluded recently with the largest American delegation ever as Jews from across the religious...

Blue Öyster Cult’s Eric Bloom on the New Album “The Symbol Remains,” His Jewish Roots, Ronnie James Dio & More

Hailing from New York, hard rock pioneers Blue Öyster Cult initially garnered huge critical acclaim and a dedicated fanbase built on songs like “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper,” “Godzilla”...

I Don’t Want to Exercise

If possible, in the mornings, try and do something for someone before you do something for yourself, even if it’s feeding a stray cat. It gets you out of yourself.

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s Rachel Bloom Set to Write *NSYNC Movie Musical

Rachel Bloom is transitioning from a crazy ex-girlfriend to *NSYNC super-fan. The Golden Globe and Emmy winner tweeted Oct. 29 that she will be...

What the AIDS Crisis Taught Me About COVID-19

As I endure the COVID-19 pandemic with my partner Danny and our son Kevin in our downtown Los Angeles apartment, I cannot help but...

A Heated Conversation About Wearing Masks

The heating repairman knocked on my door at 9:00 a.m. which in Soprano Time is the middle of the night but that is neither...

A Moment in Time: Taking Responsibility for our Actions

Dear all, As I was changing Maya this week, Eli was crawling around on the floor. I heard a few harmless sounds and thought nothing...

2020’s Latest Trick: Bringing Back the Dead

Rapper superstar Kanye West, running as an independent candidate for president of the United States, interrupted his campaign this week to give his wife Kim Kardashian a hologram “performance” from her late father, Robert Kardashian, in honor of her 40th birthday.

Biden’s Iran Plan is Best

For a counterpoint, see "Trump's Iran Plan is Best." Five years ago, I wrote that “it is in our vital interest to stop Iran from getting the...

Trump’s Iran Plan is Best

The election choice between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joseph Biden will have major consequences for U.S. national security interests as they relate to the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Culture

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s Rachel Bloom Set to Write *NSYNC Movie Musical

Rachel Bloom is transitioning from a crazy ex-girlfriend to *NSYNC super-fan. The Golden Globe and Emmy winner tweeted Oct. 29 that she will be...

‘TrueFuture Israel’ Showcases Israeli People, Places and Cutting-Edge Tech Innovations

While Israel is widely known for its rich history and culture, it has also become a leading center of health and medical technology, developing...

Amal and George Clooney Honored at Simon Wiesenthal Center Museum of Tolerance 2020 Gala

The Simon Wiesenthal Center and Museum of Tolerance honored Amal and George Clooney with the 2020 Humanitarian Award at its virtual gala on Oct. 28.  Hosted...

Digital Platform Blends Technology and Spirituality for Easy Online Services

In 2011, Rabbi Daniel Medwin had an idea to digitize prayerbooks and project them onto a screen using a PowerPoint slideshow format. He never...

Oscar Isaac to Play Jewish Superhero

Oscar Isaac, who portrayed an Israeli Mossad agent in “Operation Finale” in 2018, will star in the Disney+ series “Moon Knight” as a Jewish...

Latest Articles
Latest

38th World Zionist Congress Bridges Partisan Divide, Despite Initial Divisions

(October 30, 2020 / JNS) The 38th World Zionist Congress concluded recently with the largest American delegation ever as Jews from across the religious...

Blue Öyster Cult’s Eric Bloom on the New Album “The Symbol Remains,” His Jewish Roots, Ronnie James Dio & More

Hailing from New York, hard rock pioneers Blue Öyster Cult initially garnered huge critical acclaim and a dedicated fanbase built on songs like “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper,” “Godzilla”...

I Don’t Want to Exercise

If possible, in the mornings, try and do something for someone before you do something for yourself, even if it’s feeding a stray cat. It gets you out of yourself.

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s Rachel Bloom Set to Write *NSYNC Movie Musical

Rachel Bloom is transitioning from a crazy ex-girlfriend to *NSYNC super-fan. The Golden Globe and Emmy winner tweeted Oct. 29 that she will be...

What the AIDS Crisis Taught Me About COVID-19

As I endure the COVID-19 pandemic with my partner Danny and our son Kevin in our downtown Los Angeles apartment, I cannot help but...

Hollywood

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s Rachel Bloom Set to Write *NSYNC Movie Musical

Rachel Bloom is transitioning from a crazy ex-girlfriend to *NSYNC super-fan. The Golden Globe and Emmy winner tweeted Oct. 29 that she will be...

Oscar Isaac to Play Jewish Superhero

Oscar Isaac, who portrayed an Israeli Mossad agent in “Operation Finale” in 2018, will star in the Disney+ series “Moon Knight” as a Jewish...

Jon Stewart to Return to TV in Apple TV+ Series

Emmy-winning writer producer, director and “Daily Show” host Jon Stewart will return to television with a new one-hour, multi-season current affairs series for Apple...

Podcasts

Good Grief! It’s Our Bagelversary!

 It's our first Bagelversary! The Bagels have been podcasting for a year now (check out last year's Halloween episode for our humble beginnings and...

Pandemic Times Episode 100: Who’s Better for Israel, Trump or Biden?

New David Suissa Podcast Every Tuesday and Friday. A conversation with political editor Shmuel Rosner on the upcoming U.S election, a new survey on anti-Semitism...

More news and opinions than at a Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.

x