A Week Away: Exploring religious freedom and identity abroad

I was running about my room in New York City in the last-minute throes of packing for my semester in Copenhagen when I came across, among a knot of tangled necklaces and earrings, my bracelet with the words of the Sh’mah etched out in Hebrew. Although I am not religious, I love this bracelet; Judaism is a large part of my cultural identity, and I see this piece of jewelry as a subtle reminder of the traditions and heritage that I’ve grown up with. But in that moment, as I sat on my floor staring at the distinctly Hebrew letters, I decided to leave it behind. I didn’t know much about Danish anti-Semitism other than the fact that it existed. I’d heard that there had been an attack on a synagogue a few years back, but I hadn’t really looked into the details of it. I felt, however, suddenly aware that I didn’t necessarily want to walk around Copenhagen identifying myself as Jewish by the sight of my wrist.

Three weeks later, I entered the Chabad of Denmark – but only after proving to the armed guards outside that I was Jewish and came with good intentions. I was there with some friends for a Shabbat dinner, which I spent laughing and enjoying the Jewish foods and traditions that were part of my childhood. However, the fact that I had to prove my intentions to police officers carrying machine guns stuck with me more than the delicious dinner I ate or the wonderful people I met that night. This Chabad is part of a chain of Jewish community centers throughout the world, in all of which a rabbi and their family reside. This Chabad houses Rabbi Yitzi Loewenthal. I was about to thank him for hosting the event and depart for the evening, but I realized that I needed to know more about the intense protection surrounding the evening. I asked the rabbi if I could come back another day to talk to him about it, and he enthusiastically agreed to host me at his home again.

The next week I walked into the Chabad’s brightly lit sitting room and noticed, among the Hebrew tapestries and scenic photographs of Israel, security camera footage mounted on the wall – a constant eye to the outside world and its threats pervading this warm, communal space. Loewenthal greeted me with a chipper wave, although not a handshake, since orthodox Jewish men are forbidden from touching women. He’s a bearded man with kind eyes, dark-rimmed glasses, the traditional Jewish kippah cap on his head and tzitzit strings hanging from his pants. We sat down on the Chabad’s beige sofa.

I started by asking him about the 2015 terror attack, where a gunman had opened fire outside the Great Synagogue. Many felt the attack to be a culmination of mounting anti-Semitic tensions in Copenhagen, with recent incidents including hateful graffiti found painted on the Jewish school Carolineskolen. The gunman, Omar Abdel Hamid El-Hussein, is thought to have had motivations rooted in Islamic extremism, which in Denmark often takes on an anti-Semitic tone as a result of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. These anti-Semitic trends in Copenhagen’s Muslim community have most publicly been recorded in an imam’s recent call to violence against Jews in his sermon at Nørrebro’s Masjid al-Faruq mosque.

The night of the terror attack, Hussein took as a victim a Jewish security guard named Dan Uzan, who had been keeping watch outside the bat mitzvah party of a local teenager at the Great Synagogue. The bat mitzvah girl was a good friend of Loewenthal’s family, and he had been at the synagogue that night participating in her celebration. He’d left the event early to get home to his kids, saying goodnight to Uzan on his way out. Later that night, when the Chabad was on lockdown, he was the first one asked to inform the Uzan family of Dan’s death. The loss, then, was a deeply personal one for the rabbi.

“For the Jewish community, it was obviously a traumatic event,” Loewenthal said, sighing and adjusting his kippah. “It was felt that it was a community tragedy, so there was a strong sense of it bringing people together.” He’s grateful that rather than leaving Denmark after the incident, many Danish Jews instead took it as a cue to become more involved in spiritual and cultural life.

After the attack, he went on, the Danish government instituted armed guards at all Jewish institutions – hence the machine gun-wielding officers that had greeted me outside the Chabad. More than two years later, Loewenthal and his family have gotten used to the security presence in the Chabad they call home; the guards share their challah and soup, and they often get to know the children that attend each Shabbat dinner. “They’ve become part of day-to-day life,” the rabbi said, smiling with twinkling eyes as he recounted one guard that his family grew especially close to when his youngest child was a baby. 

When I asked about Danish responses to the tragedy, Loewenthal had nothing but the best to say about local support. “I’d walk down the streets, and people would come over to me, shake my hand and say how they support [me] and send their condolences,” he said. “There was a very strong feeling – an outpouring, almost – of affection.” Anti-Semitism, despite its apparent recent flare-up in Islamic extremist and anti-Zionist circles, Loewenthal explained, is not something found among mainstream Danish culture; it is relegated, it seems, to the fringe, subcultural factions of extremism from which the attack arose.

As for his job as the Chabad’s leader, the rabbi feels honored to fill an essential role in contemporary Denmark. “After the attack, people were very much in need of community and being together, and Chabad served that role. Part of its role is not just about praying or studying or even eating but about giving that sense of community, and that’s something that Chabad has been able to give to people,” he said, glancing around the room, which was in the midst of being set for a traditional Jewish group meal. “And that sense of community has been needed all the more once the attack happened.”

Careful not to take up too much of Loewenthal’s afternoon – his daughter, he had told me, needed help with homework upstairs – I thanked him for his time and exited through the Chabad’s heavy wooden doors. I decided that I would come back for Shabbat dinner soon, and that I’d ask my parents to bring my Sh’mah bracelet from home when they visited – I wanted, I now knew, to wear my Jewish identity close to my heart and for all of Copenhagen to see. Suddenly, I was not so afraid to be visibly proud of my culture. I, like so many of the Danish Jews Loewenthal cited, felt compelled by the now two-year-old tragedy that had rocked this place to be part of the community that seeks spiritual and cultural refuge inside the Chabad’s doors.