Exploring the Jewish Community in Zurich, Switzerland
The New York Jewish Travel Guide sat down with Mendel Rosenfeld, Rabbi of the Zurich Chabad Jewish community, to ask a few questions about Jewish life and the community in Switzerland. The following interview was edited for clarity:
NYJTG: Thank you very much for your time, Rabbi. Could you briefly introduce yourself? How long have you been in Zurich, and why did you choose to come? In Zurich, how many Chabad centers are there?
The Lubavitch Rebbe sent me here when I arrived in 1982 to boost Jewish community activities, especially because many of the people were not participating, and to engage them more passionately in Jewish life. Despite the fact that I knew very little about Switzerland or the language spoken in Zurich, I immediately agreed. After settling in, I got to know the area and met a lot of lovely and hospitable people. And as the Chabad headquarters in Switzerland, we have been here for 42 years. I have established centers all around Switzerland by bringing Shlichim to locations in other cities. On the other side of Zurich’s lake is where my brother is the Chabad leader at the Chabad ESRA center, and also south of Zurich, we have opened a new center.
NYJTG: What is the Jewish culture and community like in Zurich? What are the demographics and the groups that make up the community?
The census claims that there are between 8,000 and 10,000 Jews in Zurich, although I’m not sure how accurate this is. Zurich has a number of sizable communities, but ICZ is the largest and has the most members. Two of the main communities are the Hasidic Agudat Achim community and the IRG German Jewish community. There are also various little minyanim every Shabbat. At least 20 different ones, mostly in districts two and three, are included in my count. As you might already be aware, Chabad does not see itself as an official community. Everyone is welcome since we see ourselves as an open home to all Jews.
NYJTG: How do the locals feel about Chabad and the Jewish community?
We don’t experience much antisemitism in Switzerland, and it’s likely a Swiss-inside sentiment. Still, since we get along well with the government here, I wouldn’t say that there are many anti-sentiments here. We feel safe and are not subjected to any intimidation or threats while residing in Switzerland. This is most likely one of the greatest and most pleasant places to live in all of Europe. It is a wonderful location to live in Europe, especially for families with young children, as there is less crime and services are reliable and timely. Of course, there are occasional instances, but I do not think it is any worse than elsewhere. In my opinion, things are more favorable and secure here than what’s going on in the other area.
NYJTG: Do you host community-wide Pesach seders and Sabbath dinners? Are the services conducted in Hebrew and German, and how many people attend?
Depending on the need, different Chabad center types provide various services. Tourists use Chabad for food as well as additional necessities in tourist destinations. There are not a lot of tourists who demand these services during their stay in Zurich. For Shabbat dinners, we mostly work with the locals, and we set up the community seder for at least 200 locals. However, some tourists require Shabbat dinners, and I also had 20 guests staying at my home. But this place is not overrun with tourists. The goal of Chabad is to spread Judaism throughout the world, so tourists benefit from having Chabad locations nearby, thereby strengthening and connecting them to Judaism on Shabbat.
NYJTG: The number of Jews in Zurich: is it growing or decreasing? Are they moving to Israel or staying put? Do these numbers continue to hold steady? How many Jews live in Zurich?
According to official statistics, Switzerland has between 20,000 and 25,000 Jews. There used to be a large aliyah from here, and there is a significant number of Swiss Jews in Israel. But now I don’t think much of Aliyah. Many young people emigrated to Israel, but many of them also returned. I do not believe that the Aliyah caused the community to contract, so I would say that it has remained constant. We have observed an increase in new inhabitants over the past 15 to 20 years as a result of several marriages with individuals who reside abroad. It was more to themselves when I first came here 40 years ago, but now it’s open.
NYJTG: Is there a rise in the number of secular Swiss Jews who choose not to participate in organized Jewish life and instead intermarry or live with non-Jewish partners? And what proportion does this equal?
Although I don’t have much experience with it, I believe it to be similar to other places—I don’t know the exact ratio, but it is a significant percentage, perhaps between 40 and 50 percent. I understand that many intermarried individuals still want to participate in Jewish life; consequently, we allow non-Jewish partners to attend activities of the community.
NYJTG: Do you have any non-Jewish visitors that are interested in coming here to learn more about Judaism and possibly convert?
Yes, there is, of course. Chabad does not perform the conversions; instead, we refer them to the official communities since Chabad stays out of this process. They have more individuals than they can handle and are unable to accept them all. It’s an intriguing phenomenon that many non-Jews are interested in converting. We occasionally receive it, but we don’t actively participate in conversions. We connect them with someone from the official community for more information if they are curious, want to investigate, and want to learn.
NYJTG: Does Chabad have a kindergarten, elementary school, or daycare center? What number of students are there? And do they hold community events? Purim, Hanukkah, and Simcha Torah, for instance.
Although we have a Sunday school for families without religious affiliation and a school with roughly 50 pupils, Geneva unquestionably has the largest Chabad school. We offer a variety of events, such as challah bakes, and last week, for our first Purim, we invited 400 to 500 guests to a gathering that featured a circus performance and took place in a rented gym to accommodate the big crowd. We always light the menorah candle outside on the first night of Hanukkah, and this year we were thrilled to have the mayor of Zurich speak and attend the event.
We don’t dance in the street on Simcha Torah, but others from other communities and non-members join in on this happy festival that is filled with dancing and singing. We also arrange a Shabbat Dinner once a month at Hotel Belvoir in Ruschlikon for the local Jews to enjoy delectable food, a sense of community, and camaraderie. We provide catering for roughly 100 to 150 people, many of whom are Jewish ex-pats and foreign guests, and we teach Hebrew to all of the ex-pat kids at the Zurich International School.
NYJTG: How does Chabad connect and interact with other Jewish communities in terms of activities and events?
While we concentrate more on the overall Jewish population, other groups are more concerned with the activities of their members. However, we enjoy solid ties with the neighborhood. The Hasidic community is primarily concerned with Hasidic people, but that is not the audience that requires our input. It is a peaceful environment to get along with each other, and we have a wonderful rapport with the rabbis. One of the biggest events in Switzerland is one we host every two years. Our last event was a classical concert with a 100-piece symphony orchestra in the town hall. The goal is to unite, familiarize, and connect the Jewish communities in preparation for future initiatives.
NYJTG: Thank you for your valuable time and for all the information you shared with us. I appreciated it, as will our readers.
For more information:
To plan a trip to Switzerland, contact Switzerland Tourism or go to https://www.myswitzerland.com/en-us/.
To contact Chabad Switzerland or to reserve a seat for a Shabbat dinner, email [email protected].
Story by Meyer Harroch, New York Jewish Travel Guide, and New York Jewish Guide.com
The author took part in a press trip sponsored by Switzerland Tourism.