Sweden's Court Rules In Beit Menachem Case


by Baila Olidort - GOTHENBURG, SWEDEN

December 16, 2004

A stunning ruling by Sweden’s Supreme Court yesterday brought to a close the two-year struggle of a Jewish couple fighting to keep a small school open against impending closure by the government.

In a 14-page decision on Jewish Day School Beit Menachem vs. Skolverkert, Chief Justice Marja Regner wrote that Jewish children in Sweden are entitled to the kind of intensive Jewish education that Beit Menachem offers. The decision validated the defendants’ arguments that Judaism is not a subject, but rather a way of life, and that in advancing this kind of education, Beit Menachem is providing an important service which qualifies the school even though it may not meet the requisite 20-student enrollment.

“It’s a very happy day for us,” says Leah Namdar, founder of the school with her husband Alexander, and Chabad representatives to Sweden. “The court accepted all the points we made in presenting our case that our school is providing a unique Jewish education that is critical to a Jewish way of life.”

According to Professor Elinor Ben Menachem, a neurologist at Sahlgrenska University Hospital in Sweden, the decision by Sweden’s high court “is the greatest recognition that Judaism has ever had in Sweden. It is a very proud day for Sweden’s Jews.”

The decision has far-reaching ramifications for Jewish life in Sweden that go beyond the question of whether the school would continue to function. For families who send their children to Beit Menachem, it was a question of whether they would be able to continue living in Sweden if the school were forced to close down. Lucy Weltman, a psychotherapist familiar with the school and a member of Gothenburg’s Jewish community told lubavitch.com in an earlier interview that “the only way committed Jews could ever live in Sweden with children, is if this school exists.” In fact, the ruling acknowledged that Beit Menachem is “the only Orthodox Jewish school in all of Sweden and in all of Scandinavia,” and that the Montessori Jewish Samskola—the other Jewish school in Gothenburg, is liberal in its interpretation of Judaism and thus not an alternative for families wanting a Torah-oriented education for their children.

“Judaism affects children’s daily lives every hour of the day, and attention must be given to small details in the course of the day,” wrote the Judge. This is something the children can only get in Beit Menachem—where there is a Jewish atmosphere that permeates the school day,” her decision read.

Rabbi Alex Namdar says this ruling sets a precedent in Sweden. "The court's ruling indicates that adherence to a religious Jewish way of life warrants an exception. Until now, religion was a trivial issue, maybe important for some, but surely not more important than school regulations. With this decision, this is no longer the case."

Since word got out yesterday, the Namdars’ phone lines and emails have been flooded with congratulatory blessings. “People are overcome with joy and pride at the news,” says Leah. “You need to understand that here, for Sweden’s Jews who generally feel that they need to keep a low profile and blend in, this result is tremendous.”

Judy Klecki, a parent of one the students, says the court’s decision is nothing short of amazing. “It may well be a forerunner to having brit-milah unrestricted,” she says, referring to Sweden’s restrictions on circumcisions.

The Judge's decision, observes Professor Ben Menachem, essentially recognizes the importance of the continuity of the Jewish spirit and Jewish tradition despite the fact that Swedish Jews are so assimilated, "and this is very important for anti-Semitism," she says. “The decision recognized that Beit Menachem is teaching loving-kindness towards others, and morals of ethics of Torah. That there is even a small group of children being raised with these morals is important for the whole of Swedish culture.”

Upon receiving the decision, Rabbi and Mrs. Namdar celebrated with their students at a school assembly. “The students were proud and especially honored that their school’s survival had captured international interest,” says Leah.

Paulina Wenkel, an 11-year-old student at Beit Menachem was thrilled with the verdict. "It means so much to me that the school continues--this is where I learned how to be a Jew," she said.

In a perfect denouement to this case, the celebration coincided with the last day of Chanukah—the Jewish holiday that celebrates the victory of right over might, the few over the many, spirit over matter. “We—together with our students—gave a lot of thought to this—coming as it did on the last day of Chanukah, which is all about the struggle to preserve the Jewish spirit and the Jewish way of life against attempts to suppress it,” said Rabbi Namdar.

Indeed, the Namdars, who, as Orthodox Jews, are a minority within a minority, have come to represent the proverbial few against the many. And in an entrenched secular environment averse to expressions of religious difference, the Namdars—unmistakably Chasidic in their convictions and commitment to a deeply observant lifestyle—have become the bold representatives of religious Jewish assertion.

Leah says that she and her husband feel “as though a decree against us has finally been lifted,” and are thankful that the court “really listened” to the information they presented. The Namdars spoke gratefully of the support and encouragement they received from the local community, and their fellow Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries around the world and in their own region. “We are humbled by the great news, by the kindness of G-d in this victory in Supreme court," says Rabbi Namdar.

"Now we are free to grow, to expand the Göteborgs Judiska Friskola Beit Menachem school in so many ways, and enrich Jewish life in Sweden," says Leah.

The Namdars are a feisty team who recognize that their life-long commitment to Jewish outreach is not without some bumps along the way. But they feel privileged to be serving the Jewish community, and say that they feel continually blessed by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, of righteous memory, who appointed them as Shluchim in 1991. “The Rebbe’s inspiration continues to guide us and sustains us in a very essential way in our lives and in our work."

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