OPINION: My Shabbat inside Oslo’s circle of peace exceeded all expectations

OPINION: My Shabbat inside Oslo’s circle of peace exceeded all expectations

Young Circle of Peace participants in Bergstien. Pic: Richard Verber/WJR
Young Circle of Peace participants in Bergstien. Pic: Richard Verber/WJR

By Adrian Needlestone

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.

Adrian Needlestone
Adrian Needlestone

Andy Warhol once said that everyone is famous for five 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 has more than a few Holocaust survivors. One of them Herman Kahan from is a sprightly 89 plus and a childhood friend of Ellie Wiesel. His answer to Hitler? His 17 grandchildren and 22 great-grandchildren. He logs their names and birthdays on his computer.

Since Copenhagen everything has changed for the small Norwegian Jewish community. The National newspaper Aftenposten interviewed 12 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.”

Where once volunteer security guards stood outside the synagogue and the odd policeman passed in what we would call a Panda car and give a friendly wave now stand dour riot police armed to the teeth with automatic weapons.

The turn out to the Shabbat morning service was of Yom Kippur proportions. 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 . But they do not.

I spoke with various congregants about the level of security. To me the synagogue with its adjoining old people’s home , looked more like NATO headquarters than a house of prayer.

We were told to arrive early for the Maariv service 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 parked nearby were ambulances and a fire engine.

The meeting of Jew and Muslim was scheduled for 6.30pm. But Jewish time is internationally elastic. It was nearly seven before Rabbi, Chazzan, and congregation emerged into the cold night 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.

Young Circle of Peace participants in Bergstien. Pic: Richard Verber/WJR
Young Circle of Peace participants in Bergstien. Pic: Richard Verber/WJR

Rabbi Melchior spoke first. A former Israeli Government Minister and 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.

The rabbi was followed on the lectern by a succession of young Muslims. They included 17-year-old Hajrah Arshad, the initial organiser of the evening.

The quotes varied: “Five years ago I hated Jews and five years later I am here to defend them.” Another speaker, a Liverpool supporter, told the gathered congregation to rapturous applause: ”You will never walk alone.”

The night exceeded all expectations. People were told not to bring flags which for some might be viewed as an incitement. But one Kurd turned up with an Israeli flag and a Kurdish flag which he waved nonstop.

No attempt was made by anyone in the large Muslim group, around 1,000, strong, to tear down the Israeli flag. A minor miracle in itself.

Despite this Israel was the elephant in the room which went unmentioned. The Israeli ambassador Rafi Schutz attended with his obligatory close shaven headed bodyguards.

But this being Norway, and the land of so called equal opportunity, his additional Norwegian bodyguard was a blonde Amazon around six foot tall with a no nonsense stare looking at and through those shaking the ambassador’s hand.

Tonight he was just another congregant. He did not speak to the assembled mixed audience. For the assembled Muslims to love Israel at this time was a step too far.

Interviewed by the 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.” Pushed further she accepted Israel’s right to exist but added as a “fairer society.”

Ervin Kohn, the community’s president, said he was in regular contact with Islamic leaders. 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.

But as Rabbi Melchior said: “A glimmer of hope is a light to the nations.”

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