Where Jewish Travelers and Locals in Copenhagen Feel Right at Home
December 8, 2016 by Howard Blas
The Chabad House of Denmark is the home of Rabbi Yitzchok (“Yitzi”) and Rochel Loewenthal, and their nine children, as well as the central address for anyone in search of a Shabbat meal, Jewish-studies class, guide to Jewish sites and kosher products, a Chanukah menorah-lighting, a sympathetic ear or just a place to hang out with friends, old and new.
COPENHAGEN—Walk down the block-long
Ole Suhrs Gade Street in Copenhagen—from the Botanical Gardens at one end to Sortedams Lake at the other—and there is a certain old-world
charm. Neighbors engage in quiet conversation or sip coffee at corner cafes, with dozens of bicycles parked in racks or leaning against the long rows of similar-appearing, walk-up
apartment buildings that line both sides of the street. It is therefore easy to walk right past #10 Ole Suhrs Gade without noticing anything special.
A careful observer may spot a green door with a mezuzah—and a gold sign overhead that reads: “Chabad Huset.” Welcome to the Chabad House of Denmark: home of Rabbi Yitzchok (“Yitzi”) and Rochel Loewenthal, and their nine children; and the central address for anyone in search of a Shabbat meal, Jewish-studies
class, guide to Jewish sites and kosher products, a Chanukah menorah-lighting, a sympathetic ear or just a place to hang out with friends, old and new.
The Loewenthals have learned much about the country’s rich history since arriving in Copenhagen in 1996 to serve the Danish Jewish community, and they have gotten to know local Jews who can trace their history in Denmark back to the 1600s.
In their 20 years in Denmark, the England-born
Rabbi Yitzi and United States-born
Rochel have learned Danish (while still speaking to their children in English and Yiddish, and a little Hebrew). The rabbi proudly displays two pieces of local history on the wall of the main room of the Chabad House: a 400-year-old coin from King Christian the Fourth, bearing the Tetragrammaton in Hebrew; and a yellow Jewish star from the Holocaust.
Ferried to Safety
The door of Denmark’s Chabad House is open to residents and visitors all year long.
Jews came to Denmark at different periods of history and for various reasons. In the early 1600s, King Christian IV founded the town of Glückstadt and allowed Albert Dionis, a Jewish merchant, to settle in the city. He later extended this right to a few other Jews in 1628. Jews were offered protection, and the right to hold private religious services and maintain their own cemetery, which they founded in 1693. Since 1900, another Jewish cemetery has been used as the burial ground in Copenhagen for more than 6,000 Jewish people.
By 1780, approximately 1,600 Jews lived in Denmark. At this time, the king instituted a number of reforms that helped Jews integrate more fully in to Danish society; they were permitted to attend university, join guilds, build schools and own real estate. In 1814, Danish Jews were granted civic equality; they received full citizenship rights in 1849—one of the first countries in Europe to do so.
Nearly 3,000 Jews came to Denmark in the early 1900s as they escaped such events in Russia as the Kishinev Pogrom of 1903 and the Russo-Japanese
War of 1904.
In 1940, Nazi Germany overran Europe and occupied Denmark. For three years, the Jews were left alone, but in October 1943 this changed, and the Nazis prepared to round them up. At this point, the Jewish community experienced what could be considered a Rosh Hashanah miracle. Rabbi Marcus Melchior—the great-grandfather
of the current rabbi of the main synagogue, Jair Melchior—warned the community to go in to hiding immediately. He was tipped off to the upcoming (Oct. 1) arrest and deportation of all Danish Jews. With this advance warning, only 202 were arrested.
Approximately 7,000 of Denmark’s 7,800 Jews, plus 686 non-Jewish
spouses, fled to Sweden, ferried across the Øresund strait. Approximately 500 Jews were deported to the Theresienstadt concentration camp, though most were freed about a month before the end of the war and driven in Swedish Red Cross white buses to Sweden. There are subtle reminders of the Holocaust throughout Copenhagen, including a law-firm
building that once served as Nazi headquarters and was rebuilt after a bombing by the Allies. In fact, the Chabad House building was also used as a Nazi headquarters.
The Loewenthals have the important responsibility of helping to look after the Danish Jewish community, which now numbers approximately 7,000. While there is one kosher shop in Copenhagen, few kosher-certified
products are available in local grocery stores, challah does not sit on the shelves, and kosher meat is hard to find and expensive, mainly because of Denmark’s anti-shechita
(kosher slaughter) laws. Thus, all kosher meat must be imported.
The Loewenthals seem to take the complexities of daily Jewish life in Copenhagen in stride. Even during the busy holidays of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot and Simchat Torah, the Chabad emissaries projected both a sense of calm and excitement.
On the quiet Thursday morning between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Rabbi Yitzi did what he does every morning: He goes to minyan. If enough men are lined up next door at Machzikei Hadas—the synagogue at Ole Suhrs Gate 12—then he davens (“prays”) there. On days when a minyan next door will not be possible, he walks 15 minutes through the Botanical Gardens or up Gothersgade Street, or even past the Rosenberg Slot (“castle”), the Danish National Gallery or Copenhagen University on his way to daven Selichot and Shacharit at the Copenhagen Synagogue. The beautiful shul, on Krystalgade 12, was built in 1833.
Rabbi Yitzchok (“Yitzi”) and Rochel Loewenthal, and their nine children.
After prayer, the rabbi greets and has a private word with some of the 20 or so people in attendance, then heads off to do the many “ordinary,” behind-the-scenes duties a Chabad rabbi does to keep Judaism alive. Rabbi Yitzi may stop into shops, offices or homes of community members—or perhaps the hospital, senior-citizens
home or even prison. He may stop by a local Danish school to teach about Judaism or lead a more advanced class at the Jewish school. He also visits companies where he oversees kosher supervision.
Back at the Chabad House, Rochel Loewenthal is finishing up baking brownies with two young children (whose faces are still covered in chocolate), supervising daughters in another room learning Torah and Hebrew online with the children of other Chabad shluchim from around the world, and fielding a call from a woman from New Jersey—due to arrive in Copenhagen in a few days from the United States for the 20,000 person European Society of Medical Oncology Conference—still in need of a place to stay.
With Shabbat dinner still a day away, the Chabad House is surprisingly quiet. Prayerbooks sit atop the piano in the large room lined with posters of beautiful destinations in Israel. Maps of Jewish Denmark, and flyers advertising classes and Sukkot events, sit neatly in racks. The kitchen will soon be churning out Shabbat dinner for more than 100 local residents and visitors, with foods such as fresh challah, Israeli salads, chicken soup, roasted chicken, rice and dessert.
When Shabbat arrives, many of the dinner guests pray at the shul next door, led by Rabbi Yitzi, who delivers a d’var Torah. Back at Chabad, the Loewenthals and a few visiting Lubavitcher yeshivah students put the finishing touches on dinner and table preparations. After Kiddush, hand-washing
and hamotzi, the rabbi invites guests to share a thought or asks visitors what brought them to Copenhagen.Guests With Stories to Tell
Each visitor has an interesting story. A group of religious female college students from France sits with a local Moroccan Jewish man, conversing in French. Another group of students from various universities in the United States and Canada discusses their semester abroad at the University of Copenhagen—and their plans for later in the evening. A particularly colorful graduate student in urban planning at Hebrew University in Jerusalem is here for Shabbat and Yom Kippur—on his way from Sweden to Berlin. From New Zealand, he is happy to answer questions about his kilt and special tartan pattern. Locals at dinner include a man who arrived in Copenhagen from Uruguay, via a long stint in Israel, and others who are becoming more observant. All speak with the cancer doctors and researchers in town for the oncology conference.
Rabbi Yitzi publicly acknowledges the six oncologists and researchers for the work they do, and he shares the story of his father-in-law’s amazing recovery from advanced cancer, thanks to the therapy he received. The rabbi then invites Israeli archaeologist Oren Gutfeld, spouse of an Israeli radiation oncologist, to speak and offer updates on Israeli archaeology. The audience becomes mesmerized as he describes his excavations at both the Tiferet Israel Synagogue and Hurva Synagogue in Jerusalem’s Old City.
A number of the Friday-night
guests prayed Shabbat morning at the Copenhagen Synagogue, where they experienced a Danish bat mitzvah and were treated to an outdoor kiddush. Many returned to Chabad for more delicious lunch food. Some of the Shabbat guests, including some from the oncology conference, even stayed in town for Yom Kippur a few days later. Following a relaxed seudah mafseket at Chabad on erev Yom Kippur, guests went off to the shul next door or the main synagogue.
The Copenhagen Synagogue still brings to mind safety issues, and visitors seem aware of that. A Danish police officer, after questioning those seeking to enter, uses a special key to open the shul gate. Flowers outside the synagogue serve as a reminder that in February 2015, Jewish security guard Dan Uzan, 38, was killed in a terrorist attack as he stood watch outside the synagogue, as inside people were celebrating a bat mitzvah.
Kol Nidre in Copenhagen is an extraordinary communal event; there is almost a festival-like, upbeat atmosphere. Some stay for a short time (just the Kol Nidre prayer or the rabbi’s speech), while others remain for the entire service. They’re overjoyed to see friends they likely haven’t seen the entire year.
After Musaf on Yom Kippur day, many people find their way to the Chabad House for an inspiring Minchah and Neilah service. The beautiful davening by the two young Lubavitcher yeshivah bochers was accompanied by user-friendly
teaching and discussions led by the rabbi. Everyone enjoyed a “break fast” meal of bagels (baked by Rachel herself), lox, hummus, vegetables and cake.
As the guests prepared to leave the Chabad House after a long Yom Kippur day, many paused to acknowledge that Sukkot was around the corner, and that the Loewenthals would soon be at it again, serving the community during the eight-day
holiday with the mitzvahs of lulav and etrog, sukkah and hachnasat orchim (“welcoming guests”).‘An Oasis of Judaism’
Dr. Marissa Dolled-Filhart
of New Jersey, one of the oncology researchers in town for Shabbat, notes: “Chabad of Copenhagen was extremely warm and welcoming, despite it being a very hectic time between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur—whether it was via multiple emails back and forth in advance of my arrival [they responded at all hours] to suggestions on helping make my stay in Copenhagen comfortable during the conference. Their assistance ranged from invitations to join them for meals, recommendations of beautiful local gardens to walk through and nearby historic sites to visit if time permitted, contact information for a local taxi driver if needed, and even personally walking me to the Great Synagogue to experience davening at this unique and historic synagogue. They are a very selfless couple, caring the utmost about the safety, security and Jewish experience of their visitors any time of day or night in Copenhagen.”
Lucas Em, 36, a photographer and anthropologist originally from Colombia, South America, and now living in Copenhagen, echoes Dolled-Filhart’s words.
“Chabad has been an oasis of Judaism in a place where Jewish life is not lived much at all. Yitzi and Rochel have been some of the most open-hearted
and welcoming people I have ever met,” he says. “They open their house to everyone; they open their ears to questions, doubts, stories, and they share their thoughts and words when necessary. The Chabad House is a meeting place for the Danish Jewish community. Each Friday night is a mix of locals, regulars, tourists, students and even non-Jews, who gather together under their hospitality for a night of great company, learning and food.
“For one of their daughter’s bat mitzvahs, there were—and I underestimate—about 400 people who either stayed or passed by to congratulate her and her family.
“I am not Orthodox (for those who prefer labels). There might be things I don’t understand about the ways of Chabad. But if there is something I have learned from the Loewenthals, it’s that everything starts with respect. Respect for each other and for what others believe. While you might not agree with all that’s said in the course of a conversation, you can still listen and be respectful. It is this model of respect that the Loewenthals contribute to the atmosphere of love and warmth that permeates this Chabad House.”
On Chanukah, a large menorah will be placed on Rådhuspladsen, Copenhagen’s main square. There will be a large celebration when it is lit, with hundreds of people participating. Despite the fact that many local Jews prefer to keep their identity under wraps, the annual menorah-lighting
and celebration of Jewish identity attracts a large and enthusiastic crowd—proud and excited to be able to celebrate Chanukah in this public fashion.