Rabbi Avi Feldman and his wife Mushky will fly to Iceland’s capital Reykjavík later this year with their two young daughters, Chana and Batsheva, to establish the Chabad-Lubavitch Jewish Center of Iceland, Chabad.org reported Monday.
Their appointment was announced at the Sunday-night gala banquet of the International Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch Women Emissaries (Kinus Hashluchos), which brought together 3,000 female Chabad representatives from 100 countries and their guests.
The Feldmans’ arrival in the northern island country will herald a new era for Iceland’s tiny Jewish community, entering a number of firsts in Iceland’s sparse Jewish history.
Rabbi Feldman will be the country’s first permanent rabbi; the Chabad Jewish Center will be Iceland’s first institutional Jewish presence; and aside from congregations formed by British and American troops during World War II, Chabad of Reykjavík will be the first synagogue in Iceland’s history.
The history of the Jews in Iceland is relatively short, beginning in 1625. In 2017, some 100-150 Jews were living in Iceland. But as early as the eleventh century, Icelanders have called the Jews Gyðingar, a derivative of Guð (God). The Gyðinga Saga, the Saga of the Jews, was written in the thirteenth century. It is a translation of the First Book of Maccabees and fragments from the writings of Josephus Flavius.
In 1853, Iceland’s Alþingi (parliament) rejected a request by the Danish king to implement the Danish law allowing foreign Jews to reside in the country. Two years later, the same parliament told the king that the law would be applied to Iceland and that both Danish and foreign Jews were welcome. The Alþingi said that the Jews were enterprising merchants who did not try to lure others to their religion. However, no Jew is known to have accepted this offer.
In the late nineteenth century, there were a small number of trading agents in Iceland representing firms owned by Danish Jews. In 1913, Fritz Heymann Nathan, a Danish Jew, founded Nathan & Olsen in Reykjavík. After his marriage in 1917, he realized it was impossible to conduct a Jewish life in Iceland and moved to Copenhagen. The firm was highly successful until the Icelandic government introduced trade restrictions in the 1930s. In 1916, Nathan built the first big building of Reykjavík, with five stories. The building was designed by Mr. Guðjón Samúelsson and was considered very elegant. It was the first building to be lit by electric lights.