Jeppe Lilholt, a native of a small village north of Copenhagen in Denmark was always looking for something to believe in. “I think I always believed in G-d,” he says. “I just didn’t know what to do about it.” His mother, he recently learned, is Jewish. A providential encounter with newly arrived Chabad emissaries, Rabbi Yitzchok and Rochel Lowenthal shortly after his move to Copenhagen at the age of 20, brought Lilholt to synagogue for Yom Kippur services for the first time in his life. “I had never heard of Yom Kippur before that experience,” he says. But since then, Lilholt’s discovered a way to do “more than just believe in G-d. The embrace of mitzvot and Jewish tradition have given me a fulfillment that simply “believing” can never do.”
Lilholt joined a small but rapidly growing crowd of Danish Jews drawn to the warmth and activity generated by the Loewenthals in Copenhagen. Three years after that first Yom Kippur, Rochel Loewenthal called to invite him for holiday dinner on the first night of Sukkot. “You better come over tonight,” she told him. Lilholt was working the night shift at a hotel that week and only wanted to sleep. But Loewenthal insisted, so he came. Joining him at the table was another guest, Marina Bokk, a Copenhagen native who was on a spiritual journey of her own, sparked by a recent encounter with the Loewenthals. That was three years ago, and Jeppe and Marina have been inseparable since, with wedding plans now in the works.
Lilholt and Bokk, who plan on creating a “really Jewish home,” are only two of hundreds of Danish Jews turning the tide of assimilation and rediscovering a warm, vibrant Judaism very relevant to their lives, says Rabbi Yitzchok Loewenthal.
When Loewenthal and his wife moved here in 1997, few of Denmark’s 8-9000 Jews considered themselves part of the Jewish community and the rate of intermarriage was over 90%. “Since the first Jews arrived here about 300 years ago, Danish society has been unusually welcoming and accepting of them,” he says. In fact, during the holocaust, Danish citizens coordinated a daring rescue effort, smuggling hundreds of their Jewish friends to Sweden to elude capture by the Nazis. Perhaps as a result of that total acceptance, Jewish families have always integrated wholly into Danish society, and although were times when religious Jewish life thrived in Copenhagen, many signs of it were gone by the time the Loewenthals arrived.
Chaim and Chana Gray, a Chabad couple who moved to Copenhagen for three years in the mid 90’s to assume a business post there, were the force behind Chabad’s establishment in Denmark. “We came to Copenhagen and saw a community where most of the committed younger people had moved away, to Israel mainly, and the ones who were left had, at best, a tenuous connection to Yiddishkeit,” Chana recalls. “After about a year here, we decided that before we leave, Chabad had to come to Denmark.”
Only several months later, Yitzchok and Rochel Loewenthal, newly married and expecting their first child, arrived in Copenhagen to establish Chabad of Denmark. .
“Public displays of Yiddishkeit are not a part of the Danish-Jewish mentality,” Chana Gray observes. “When the Loewenthals first came and started doing things publicly, they were met with a lot of suspicion. People were not used to this.”
Rochel Loewenthal says the suspicion actually generated good publicity. “Our first Chanukah event, in a rented hall in the center of created something of an uproar in the community,” she says. “But 200 people showed up because of that, and most of them keep coming back.”
It’s a different style, but one that has proved, over six years, to work very well with the Danish Jewish community, Gray says.
“People were really looking for this kind of vibrant Yiddishkeit,” she says. “It’s phenomenal what has happened to Jewish life in Copenhagen in so short a time.”
Working together with the local rabbi and the two local synagogues, ChabaDenmark offers the community a wide array of Torah classes, family programs, Shabbat dinners, public holiday events, children’s programs, summer camps, afternoon Hebrew school and more, Loewenthal says, many all well attended by ever-growing numbers of Danish Jews.
“We’re working on building up a sense of community, particularly with the younger people,” he says. “It’s very important for young Jews to have a community to identify with where they feel they belong.”
Every community needs a home, and ChabaDenmark recently moved into theirs: a 5000 square foot building in the heart of Copenhagen, generously donated for Chabad’s use by an elderly Danish Jew, Mr. Abraham Gutterman. Forty years ago, Rabbi Lowenthal relates, Gutterman visited the Lubavitcher Rebbe and asked him why there was no Chabad presence in Denmark. Smiling, the Rebbe told him, “You give half, and Lubavitch will give half.” Nearly four decades later, Loewenthal, who had met Gutterman not long after his arrival in Copenhagen, brought up the Rebbe’s proposal with him. “You give us use of the building,” he suggested-Gutterman owned a building which had been used previously as a school for Russian Jewish children but was now empty, and in need of a total overhaul-“and we’ll take care of refurbishing it to suit our purposes.” Gutterman agreed, and with the help of Mr. George Rohr and local donors, Chabad remodeled the building to house a Judaica store, library, classrooms, study hall, kitchens, offices and restaurant.
“Most of the community’s growth was happening in our home until now,” Rochel Loewenthal says, “so space was limited.” Now settled in their new place, she sees a “stronger, vibrant, and more committed Jewish community coming together in the years ahead.”
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