At a mid-August Shabbat dinner in Reykjavik, Iceland, I sat among some 50 fellow travelers, enjoying simple delicacies and conversation that flowed along with the sweet wine. A Frenchman to my left spoke of his departed father, who had been from the Transylvania region of Romania. The woman to my right overheard. Her mother, too, was from Transylvania, she said. I piped up, “My father-in-law was also from Transylvania!” When she elaborated that her mother was from the small town of Sighet, it was a goose-bump moment. That’s where my father-in-law grew up, and the place from which he, my dining companion’s mother and, famously, Elie Wiesel were transported to concentration camps. All barely survived.
It’s profound connections like these that draw Jews together as we explore the world. Iceland is a friendly country, and I never felt “other” or out of place. Still, it was comforting to gather for a Sabbath meal with many Jewish travelers from the US, Canada, Israel and Europe, as well as a handful of permanent residents of Reykjavik. I heard Hebrew spoken everywhere I went. Israelis have discovered the beauty and culture of Iceland in a big way as tourists and are among the 250 or so known Jewish residents of the country.
I’m a secular Jew who acknowledges my roots mainly around the major holidays. But when I discovered that Iceland’s first full-time rabbi, Avi Feldman (along his wife Mushky and young daughters) had recently settled in Iceland, I was intrigued.
Until this year, Iceland was the only European country without a full-time rabbi. That all changed in 2017, when, after visiting Reykjavik, Rabbi Avi Feldman and Mushky made the decision to dedicate their lives to the Jewish community of Iceland. A near-term goal is to create a full-fledged Jewish center and synagogue in central Reykjavik. (Learn more about how you can partner with Jewish Iceland to fulfill this vision.)
The Feldmans are part of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, described on Jewish Iceland’s website as “the most dynamic force in Jewish life today.” Chabad hosts Shabbat dinners, services and holiday celebrations, as well as assisting in access to kosher foods in cities and college campuses around the world. Their mission is to provide a warm Jewish home away from home. As a barely practicing Jew myself, I never felt judged, but rather encouraged to learn, enjoy and glean whatever would enrich my experience, as the mission of Jewish Iceland states:
We strive to create a warm, welcoming environment to explore and experience our heritage in a non-judgmental and inviting atmosphere. We are founded on the principle that, while Jews may embrace many levels of observance in their personal lives, there should be a place for all Jews—no labels, no affiliations—to develop a sense of community, to enhance the experience of being Jewish, to learn and enjoy Judaism.
Rabbi Avi Feldman was raised in Brooklyn, New York, and completed his rabbinical studies in the US, England and Australia. After being ordained in 2013, he served Jewish communities without synagogues or full-time rabbis, including cities in Germany, Ukraine, Peru and Poland.
Mushky Feldman was born and raised in Gothenburg, Sweden. She studied in New York, Israel and Austria, received a Bachelor of Education in 2015. Her experiences in teaching and mentoring serve her well in her new capacity as the rebbetzin of Iceland. Mushky oversees the weekly Shabbat dinner and organizes other events like the challah-making workshop I attended.
My eggless version of challah turned out nothing short of spectacular, far surpassing anything I’d ever made at home! I brought the four loaves back to the artist residency at which I was staying and quipped to my fellow residents about the irony of coming all the way to Iceland to explore my Jewish roots.
I felt the pull to attend two Shabbat dinners during my stay in Reykjavik. The meals were abundant, even for a longtime vegan like myself, with delicious Israeli-style salads, roasted vegetable dishes, rice specialties, fresh fruit and desserts (local fresh fish was also served). Yet through connecting with Iceland’s Jewish community and fellow travelers, it was more than my appetite that was satisfied; it was my soul that was truly fed.
If you’re planning to visit Iceland, head to Jewish Iceland to learn more.