The secularism of Swedish Jewish life has allowed women to have full and equal access to its Jewish communal leadership, with women running the country’s official community, its secular yeshiva, and its largest annual gathering in Limmud. Its religious institutions, however, are still exclusively male. Sweden’s secularism is partly responsible for its highly successful Limmud.
The country is also home to an important center of secular Jewish learning, Paideia: The European Institute for Jewish Studies in Sweden. The very name, from ancient Greek for the union of civilization, tradition, literature, and philosophy, shows how the institute reflects secular values. Barbara Spectre, an American-Israeli, founded Paideia because she believes that the key to inspired Jewish leadership is knowledge of Jewish sources, and that in Europe this training is best accomplished in a secular environment open to Jews and non-Jews.
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The Radical Jewish Traveler celebrates secularism at the 60th parallel.
I came to Sweden to present at Stockholm’s second-ever Limmud, the festival of Jewish learning launched in England 28 years ago. When I told people that I was going to experience Jewish Sweden, the most common reactions I heard were, “Isn’t Sweden anti-Semitic?” and “Are there any Jews there?”
Let’s be honest, Sweden is not known as a global hotspot of Jewish life. But there are about 20,000 Jews in Sweden–14,000 of whom live in Stockholm. Of those in Stockholm, about 4,500 are registered with the official unified Jewish community. Kosher slaughter has been illegal in Sweden since the 1930s, and circumcision is only legal if performed by a medical doctor.