February 20, 2019

My Shabbat in Malmo

From 1932 to 1946, Rabbi Eliezer Berlinger served as the chief rabbi of the Malmo Jewish Congregation. The most important events in the history of this Jewish community in Sweden took place on his watch. There were the numerous Danish Jews who fled deportation and certain death by the Nazis with the help of their righteous Christian neighbors who reached Malmo in 1943 and 1944.

And then came Sept. 17, 1945. Yom Kippur. After Shacharit on the holiest day of the year, Rabbi Berlinger suddenly rose to the podium and announced that the service was over. Everyone was urged to make their way to Malmo’s port. “A shipload of survivors is arriving and we must be there to greet them,” said Eliezer Fishbein, a native of Malmo. When the Sheerit Haplaitah’s passengers disembarked, they were asked what they wanted, and the response was: “It’s Yom Kippur — take us to shul.” Thus began a dramatic silent march through the streets of Malmo led by these Jewish survivors — many too weak to walk — that culminated in prayer at the synagogue that must have surely pierced the highest levels of the heavenly kingdom.

This past Shabbat, I was invited to give the sermon at that synagogue, which serves a community about 1 percent the size of Southern California’s 750,000-strong Jewish community. I came there, because all is not well for Jews in Malmo; particularly if you walk around with a chai or Magen David around your neck, or if you happened to look like the wonderful, Detroit-born Rabbi Shneur Kesselman. The bearded rav had given up calling the police, after they failed to respond to any of dozens of incidents of anti-Semitic threats and intimidation he personally experienced when making his way to and from the synagogue. Most threats had emanated from a small number of extremists in the 70,000-strong Muslim community.

Those incidents came amid other troubling events. Malmo’s mayor, Ilmar Reepalu refused to allow anyone to attend a Davis Cup match between Israel and Sweden. Later he would declare that he “opposed anti-Semitism and Zionism.” Then, during the 2009 Gaza war, an outrageous incident took place that still traumatizes the locals. As a pro-peace rally began in the city’s main square, the police chief stood and did nothing as peaceful pro-Israel marchers had to flee down a back alley, after being set upon by rock-throwing, cursing thugs.

We launched our own investigation, and when we confirmed that none of Rabbi Kesselman’s dozens of pleas to authorities had ever led to a single investigation, arrest or prosecution, I traveled last December with my Paris-based colleague, Shimon Samuels, to Sweden’s capital, Stockholm, where I informed Justice Minister Beatrice Ask that the Wiesenthal Center was slapping a “travel advisory” on Malmo. When the stunned Cabinet official asked why, I pointed to my kippah and explained: “If you will send a plainclothes policeman to follow me around Malmo, you would understand immediately.”

So, on March 11, Samuels and I met at the Copenhagen Airport and, three short train stops later, arrived in Malmo for a five-day fact-finding mission. We met with political leaders, including the mayor, police officials and activists from minority communities, including the Roma.

The president of the Islamic Center reminisced about visiting his Jewish neighbors on Shabbat as a kid in his native Macedonia. He spoke frankly about the small extremist minority of Muslims who refuse to embrace the democratic values of Sweden. The members of the Jewish kehillah were warm and welcoming. Rabbi Kesselman’s dignified steadfastness and the unstinting commitment of so many of the members of that small community touched us deeply.

My Shabbat morning dvar Torah was based on a brilliant insight by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik from the Talmud Megillah (4). There, two sages provided polar-opposite explanations as to why we read Megillat Esther both at night and on Purim morning. Both sages invoked King David’s Psalms. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi quoted Psalms 22:3: “Oh my God, I call by day but you answer not and at night and there’s no surcease for me.” For him, the Megillah equals prayer, a desperate tefilah brought by a distraught person on the verge of disaster. For Ula of Biri, invoking Psalms 30:13 — “So that my glory may sing praises to You and not be silent …” — Purim is a 24-hour marathon of nonstop joy; so profound a jubilation that Rav Nachman says that reading the Megillah is equivalent to chanting Hallel. Rav Soloveitchik goes on to explain that Purim and Jewish history are composites of both of these contradictory elements.

Indeed, there were people in shul that Shabbat in Malmo and Los Angeles who were in Auschwitz death camp in 1945 and fighting to protect the new state of Israel, just three years later, in 1948.
Our everyday lives, with all their unexpected challenges, often feel like random, inexplicable and unconnected events. The reading of Megillat Esther is a reminder to us that God’s hand is there in everything that takes place, the good and the bad. Our challenge is to care for each other, cry together in times of tragedy and sing Hashem’s praises when we prevail:
Queen Esther understood that the ultimate power of our people emerges when we stand together: “Lech knos et kol HaYehudim.” Gather up all the Jews, she beseeched Mordechai at the pivotal moment of the Purim drama.

As I see it, God still wants Jews to care for each other. It makes no difference if we live in a city with 200 kosher restaurants or in a small community in blustery Malmo. We are required to show areivut — solidarity — with each other. I don’t know if we will be successful in changing the situation in Malmo, but we did deliver a clear, unambiguous message to everyone we met — Jew and Non-Jew: We will not stand silently by and allow for the abandonment of our fellow Jews. 
When Jews live by the areivut principle, good things happen: We strengthen the resolve of wonderful people like Rabbi and Mrs. Kesselman, and find new respect and allies from our neighbors. Happy Purim!

Rabbi Abraham Cooper is the associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.