Freedom of Religious Education: On Trial in Sweden


GOTHENBURG, SWEDEN

October 19, 2004

Early next month a young Jewish couple will travel from their home in Gothenburg to Sweden’s Supreme Court in Stockholm, where they will stand before a judge as defendants in Jewish Day School Beit Menachem vs. Skolverkert, and plead their case for freedom of religious education. The judge’s decision may establish a precedent with important ramifications for religious minorities in Sweden, particularly as it concerns Sweden's Jews (pop. 17,000).

The case centers on the government’s attempt to close down the Gothenburg Jewish Day School Beit Menachem, the only Torah-oriented day school in all of Scandinavia where children are offered a rich, multi-lingual Jewish and secular studies program. The school, which passed inspections for curriculum and educational standards by the Swedish skolverkert, or board of education, is unique, among other things, for the fluency in Hebrew and English language skills mastered by its students. Since its establishment in 1997, Gothenburg’s Jewish Day School grew from less than a handful of children to 18—a respectable figure for a religious school considering Gothenburg’s total Jewish population estimated at a paltry 1,800.

But two years ago, following the opening of a new school in Gothenburg--the Montessori Jewish Samskola—government authorities began to question Beit Menachem’s right to exist, and soon demanded the school to close down. The new school, though Jewish in name, does not advance the level of traditional Jewish values that Gothenburg’s Beit Menachem does, so it is not a viable alternative for those wanting an intensive Jewish education for their children, explains Rabbi Michael Danow, a teacher of Jewish studies at Beit Menachem. “Although our school is open to all Jewish children—Orthodox, Conservative and Reform—it is the only one that provides a level of intensive Jewish education that is simply not available anywhere else.”

When the district court refused the school a hearing, Rabbi Alexander and Leah Namdar, founders of the school and directors of Chabad of Sweden, appealed to Sweden’s Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case. “Officially, we are told that the law requires us to have a minimum of 20 students to stay open,” explains Leah. But the school’s enrollment, on its way to meeting the 20-student stipulation, was hampered by the government’s threat to condemn it. “People are afraid to place their children in a school that is condemned,” she says. “With less than that number, we are told that only schools serving special needs students are permitted to function.” So now the Namdars must convince the judge that Jewish students qualify for special needs consideration, and that Beit Menachem is answering these needs.

Susanna Lowy, a mother of three children attending the Chabad school, has come to understand how critical a need Beit Menachem serves. Her twins began attending the school three years ago, when they were six years old, and her oldest daughter, now 15, chose to attend the school when she became 12. The Chabad school “is the only school where my children are able to get a real Jewish education in Sweden, actually in the whole of Scandinavia,” she says.

Susanna is among other adults who, as a result of Chabad’s educational services in Gothenburg—particularly those who have had children in Beit Menachem—have since appropriated a more meaningful claim on their Judaism. “I chose this school for my son because I want him to learn the joy of his heritage and tradition, and that’s something he could only get here,” says Judy Klecki, 30, a native of Gothenburg.

According to Ingrid Lomfors, a Jewish historian at Gothenburg University and a member of the local Jewish community, the Namdars’ ordeal is illustrative of Sweden’s inexperience in responding to the shift from a homogenous, to a multi-ethnic society. “Sweden has for so long been such a homogenous society, that it really does not know how to understand and how to relate to the demands for separate schools,” she explains. “With the growth of immigrant communities in recent years, it is a phenomenon with no precedent, and is very much on debate here.”

But, as Rabbi Namdar points out, “Sweden is a profoundly secular country. The attitude here towards religion is distinctly sterile, and you can’t ignore that factor when you consider the pressure we are encountering to close down the school.” Sweden’s dyed-in-the-wool secularism and aversion to matters of religious concern makes this an uphill battle for the Chabad representatives working to enrich the spiritual quality of life for this country’s Jews. Although Ingrid Lomfors says that it’s not only the Chabad school, but many of the religious schools that are facing similar pressure, she concurs that it may well be a matter of degree—that a more rigorous adherence to a religious identity might evoke greater resistance, as may be the case of the Chabad school.

Nevertheless, with its educational and social programs, Chabad has made deep inroads to Jewish life in Gothenburg, and have worked to raise the level of Jewish awareness in a society with the highest intermarriage rate in the world. “We have about 1,000 Jewish people who are affiliated at some level or other with our activities,” says Leah, who runs adult educational programs and a host of community services together with her husband in a dynamic partnership. “In recent years,” says Rabbi Namdar, “the community here has made great strides in terms of its Jewish identification.”

Jens Goldman, 36, a native of Gothenburg who comes from a traditional Jewish home, has chosen to live an observant Jewish life since meeting the Namdars. For all of Sweden’s claims to individual self-determination, he observes, there is in fact a deep distaste for assertions of distinctiveness, particularly when it comes to matters of faith and religion. So discovering people like the Namdars who are not coy about their Jewish identity, was refreshing to Jens. “To see that even in Sweden, which is so cold to religion, it is possible to live as a proud, Orthodox Jew, was just uplifting.” It is especially true for many Jews who have come out of a post-Holocaust milieu where prevailing code of conduct demanded that Jews keep a low profile and blend in as best as possible.

Anders Carlberg, President of Gothenburg’s Jewish community concedes that Chabad’s Beit Menachem is unique in that “it provides a traditional Jewish context for children and their families who want to live a traditional Jewish lifestyle.” Being the only representatives of this kind of religious Jewish life, the Namdars, says Carlberg, “are a minority within a minority, and have the sympathy of Gothenburg’s Jewish community. They would certainly be missed if they were not here.”

But it is the judge’s sympathy that the Namdars will need to win, come November 4. As Leah sees it, “We are in a position where we need to persuade the judge that Sweden’s Jews should not be deprived of the freedom to choose the kind of schooling they want for their children—just as Jews are free today to do everywhere else.”

Hanging in the balance—most immediately—is the question of whether Jews who choose to live a more observant Jewish life will be able to continue living in Sweden. Lucy Weltman, a psychotherapist familiar with the school and a member of Gothenburg’s Jewish community says that “the only way committed Jews could ever live in Sweden with children, is if this school exists.”

The Namdars are optimistic. “Beit Menachem qualifies under the law." Furthermore, Sweden is in the lead when it comes to advocacy for minorities, he reasons. “I am confident that the Swedish court will prove to be respectful of the needs of a Jewish minority as well.”

By Baila Olidort

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