This is the diary of my Shabbat at Bergstien.
As the only synagogue in Oslo, just one of two in Norway, the “Mosaiske“ congregation in Bergstien is both anonymous and accessible. If you ask for directions chances are most people will not know it. But being one of a kind those who can confidently direct you will not send you astray.
Andy Warhol once said that everyone is famous for 5 minutes. On Saturday it was the turn of this small but vibrant modern orthodox community to bask somewhat nervously in the lime light. In their hearts they pray for a return to anonymity. It is a prayer, considering the dangerous state of the world, unlikely to be answered anytime soon.
The synagogue is built in Austro-Hungarian empire style with the ladies gallery to the rear and the Bima and ark housing the Safer Torah at the front. The membership is very eclectic with proportionally more than its share of “wandering Jews.” From the obligatory Israelis, who seem to have members at almost every synagogue in the world, through to Americans passing through but who then went no further. Then there are the Brits who followed the oil industry and Sephardim from Tunisia and Morocco.
Also the synagogue has more than a few Holocaust survivors. One of them Herman Kahan is a sprightly 89 plus and a childhood friend of Ellie Wiesel. He told me had 17 grandchildren and 22 great-grandchildren. I asked him how he remembered their names and birthdays. He smiled and told me he had them listed in his computer. In his 90th year he may be but technology has not left Herman behind.
Following the murder of a volunteer synagogue security guard in nearby Copenhagen this community of little more than 1000 people feels more embattled than ever. For some time large concrete blocks have been a feature of the front of the synagogue. Occasionally a policeman in what would pass for a Panda car in England would drive slowly by.
Since Copenhagen everything has changed for the small Norwegian Jewish community. The National newspaper Aftenposten interviewed 10 Jews for the front page of their Saturday edition. They ranged from a 16 year old student through to a 91 year old, the last Norwegian born Holocaust survivor. It ran under the headline “We told you the wolf was at the door. Now it is inside the gates.”
The concrete blocks, once simply an unsightly but accepted feature of the entrance to the synagogue, have multiplied and are now strewn right across the entrance to the road. The policeman in the Panda car is also history. On the inside of the concrete cordon were parked two police estate vehicles. Standing by them eyes rigidly fixed forward, three officers in full riot gear with bullet proof vests. No pea shooter side arms here. Just very business like automatic weapons able to be fired at a moments notice.
On the outside of the ring stood a volunteer security guard placing his life and safety entirely in the ability of the officers on the other side of the concrete blocks. Just a walkie-talkie in hand and a chain round his neck with a metal badge to show his official position as a security guard. When worshippers have traversed these unfortunate but necessary obstacles they are met with a narrow metal barrier, rather like those used at the Lord mayors show to keep back the crowds.
Once checked through they are into the entrance area of the synagogue where the congregants are wished Shabbat shalom by the last of the security guards who sits behind bullet proof glass, also with a walkie-talkie.
Behind him sits another specialist police officer a young man with a willing smile who makes friendly facial gestures to the babies and young children as they walk through. He too is armed to the teeth. I engage the security guard, originally from England, in football banter. Something always near to the heart of any Englishman. He is Manchester City and I Chelsea. Enough said. It irks me to say he finished the happier on the day.
The turn out to the morning service was of Yom Kippur proportions. Probably around a quarter of the capital’s entire Jewish population. During his sermon Chief Rabbi Michael Melchior said all religions have passages in their sacred texts which could be interpreted as commands to go out and kill others. He pointed out that Jews who regularly pray say three times a day the following ”We look forward to the day when false gods shall cease to take your place in the hearts of men and all will accept your unchallenged rule.”
Some he said could take this as an instruction to hasten this day by going out and killing non-believers however Jews simply do not and have not. On the pews facing each seat lay a four page programme of activities. Bizarrely on the back page a regular feature, and always in English, is a Jewish joke, usually at the expense of Rabbis in general but always with Jews as the butt of the humour.
A special Kiddush followed the service complete with vegetable chulent and Danish pastry known throughout Scandinavia as Wienerbrod.
The synagogue board could not resist the opportunity of adding extra services which had not taken place for years due to lack of numbers. First there was a special service for the security team held to remember their murdered colleague in Denmark. The Maariv service for which local Muslims had promised to throw a peace cordon or ring of steel to protect the synagogue, was itself an extra service, not one regularly held at Bergstein.
I spoke with various congregants about the level of security. They felt what I witnessed was for “special occasions.” I remarked that a terrorist is not bound to attack on special occasions and I wondered out loud how long people could live with this level of security. The synagogue, with its old people’s home adjoining, looked more like NATO headquarters than a House of Prayer.
The time for the evening service crept up on us at the speed of Usain Bolt, himself a regular feature at the nearby Bislett Stadium. We were told to arrive around a half an hour early because no one knew what to expect. That was certainly true of the security services. Police cars and armed officers were everywhere. Vans with blacked out windows carried riot police and further cars were parked in the nearby park along with ambulances and even a fire engine.
The meeting of Jew and Muslim was scheduled for six thirty. But Jewish time is internationally elastic and it transpired 6.30 pm was the time of the service rather than the meet and greet episode. It was nearly seven before Rabbi, Chazzan, and congregation emerged into the cold dark Norwegian air to say Havdalah. The congregation sang, many in the watching crowd quickly picked up the chorus and joined in. At its conclusion a young girl with blonde ringlets doused the flame.
Rabbi Melchior spoke first. A former Israeli Government Minister he is no stranger to personal sorrow. The father of four sons, he lost one to cancer. Another is the congregational Rabbi at Bergstien and a third son is the chief rabbi of Denmark. Rabbi Melchior told how he spoke to the grieving father of the slaughtered volunteer security guard and asked him if he had lost his faith in God. He then told the father of the peace demonstration planned by young Norwegian Muslims. The father replied that such news gave him the will to carry on.
He was followed on the lectern by a succession of young Muslims. The first being the 17 year old girl Hajrah Arshad, the initial organiser of the peace meeting. She spoke with the assurance of a seasoned politician and was followed by a succession of young men, none matching her fluency but all speaking with sincerity with something important to say.
The quotes varied from “Five years ago I hated Jews and five years later I am here to defend them.” The speaker said he’d learned a lot over the last five years. Another speaker who said he was a Liverpool supporter told the gathered congregation ”You will never walk alone.” To rapturous applause.
The night exceeded all expectations. People had been told not to bring flags which for some might be viewed as an incitement. Ignoring this instruction one Kurd turned up with an Israeli flag and a Kurdish flag both of which he waved nonstop. No attempt was made by anyone in the large Muslim group, said to number more than a 1000, to tear down the Israeli flag . A minor miracle in itself.
Despite this Israel was the elephant in the room which remained unspoken. The Israeli ambassador Rafi Schutz attended with his obligatory close shaven headed body guards. But this being Norway, and further more a land of so called equal opportunity, his additional Norwegian body guard was a blonde Amazon around six foot tall with a no nonsense stare looking at and through those shaking the ambassador’s hand.
On this occasion he was just another congregant. He did not speak to the assembled mixed audience outside after the service nor was his absence mentioned. For the assembled Muslims to love and respect Israel at this early stage was probably asking too much. Interviewed by the leading Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten a day earlier Hajrah Arshad was asked why last year she shared a map of Palestine on her Facebook page which failed to show Israel. She called it a “mistake.” When further pushed and asked whether she accepted Israel’s right to exist she finally replied she did but as a “fairer society.”
I then chatted with various Muslims in the crowd. Three young men with flowing beards and of substantial build and size but with gentle voices answered when I asked if I could take their pictures “as long as it’s not for the Miff website,” the local pro-Israel group. Of course they might well have been displaying a wry sense of humour. But I felt it prudent not to ask.
The young Muslims who had turned out were just that. Young. They were intelligent, sophisticated, and educated. Barring accidents they are destined for success in life. This is not the stereotype of the typical terrorist. Often uneducated, a loner who feels life has dealt them a poor hand because of their ethnicity and religion. The Muslims who turned out, whatever their beliefs, did not fit this category.
These disenchanted and outcasts of the Muslim community have drummed into them that despite there being less than 1500 Jews in the country they hold senior positions in the education ,arts ,the press and sciences. How can this be explained? A worldwide Jewish conspiracy is the answer which can and must be ended by direct and violent action.
Ervin Kohn, the community’s president, told the gathering that he has had regular contact with the Islamic leaders for many years. But this was the first time he’d had direct contact with the younger generation. Let’s hope these young people are not quickly disillusioned. They face a well organised, well-funded and brutal foe who care as little for Muslim lives as they do for those of Jews. Nevertheless as Rabbi Melchior said he saw this action as a light which he hoped would spread and continue to shine.