On Feb. 14, a 22-year-old terrorist opened fire outside the Great Synagogue in central Copenhagen, killing 38-year-old Dan Uzan, who was guarding the synagogue where more than 80 people were attending a bat mitzvah celebration. Earlier that day, a 55-year-old man was killed and three police officers wounded in a local cafe at an event supporting the freedom of expression. The events echoed a week of violence the month before in France.
Rabbi Yitzchok Loewenthal, co-director of Chabad of Denmark in Copenhagen with his wife, Rochel since 1996, was at the synagogue only 30 minutes beforehand. At the time, he described the lockdown procedures that followed the attack: “Police with machine guns have now closed the Chabad House street at both ends. Helicopters and sirens all around. Barricaded all doors.”
Will you offer us a hand? Every gift, regardless of size, fuels our future.
Your critical contribution enables us to maintain our independence from shareholders or wealthy owners, allowing us to keep up reporting without bias. It means we can continue to make Jewish Business News available to everyone.
You can support us for as little as $1 via PayPal at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Three months later, he talks about the repercussions of the distressing incidents, along with the approach of the Jewish holiday of Lag BaOmer, which begins tomorrow night, May 6. Like Chabad centers all over the world, the day will be celebrated with festivities and study.
A: Despite the tragedy, people have pulled together. People have shown their connection in different ways, including being more interested in Judaism and participating in Jewish events. Although it takes more effort for people to come to Jewish events because it is now viewed as somewhat dangerous, we have not seen a lessening of participation. On the contrary, a number of young people have become more interested in the Chabad House and our activities, partially as a result of their response to the attack. We also now have security around-the-clock, at least for the time being.
Q: Lag BaOmer carries the theme of the imperative to love and respect one’s fellow Jew (Ahavat Yisrael). In these contemporary times, how is that exemplified? And how does that carry over into the larger world, again considering what happened in the city back in February?
A: It is exemplified through care, respect and love for one another, focusing on the deeper dimension of our identity, and focusing on what unites us instead of what divides us. Concerning the Danish Jewish community, some of the petty differences and disagreements that have been a part of the discourse of the community have quieted down as people have realized that it is important to stand together, and remain united and strong.
Q: The holiday also fosters the theme of Jewish unity. How so, practically speaking?
A: Jewish unity is more than just a slogan; it is a perspective. That is what the Lubavitcher Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory—stressed is the principal theme of Lag BaOmer. We try to emphasize this perspective—a more spiritual perspective, a perspective that sees the positive.
Q: How has Chabad of Denmark traditionally celebrated Lag BaOmer?
A: We generally have a big barbecue and picnic, with activities for children and adults. There are moon bounces, and we always make a bonfire. It usually draws a few hundred people from all walks of Jewish life. It is an event that is very popular, celebrated in Fælledparken, the local park. We also put up a replica of the Western Wall in Jerusalem (the Kotel), and many men put on tefillin. And, of course, we hold classes about the holiday and topics related to it.
Q: Mourning observances during the weeks of Omer-counting are suspended on the 33rd day—Lag BaOmer. That means weddings can take place. Have there been many weddings on this day since you have been in Copenhagen? Is there any ceremony that stands out?
A: One that stands out from the past is of the wedding of good friends of ours, where the girl had been to our camp and Talmud Torah, and years later, she met her chatan(bridegroom) at the Chabad House. They decided to get married on Lag BaOmer, but didn’t want it to disturb our annual barbecue event in the park. So they made the chuppah in the morning, then we had our barbecue in the afternoon, and in the evening was the wedding meal. It was a Lag BaOmer to truly be remembered.
Q: In light of what happened earlier this year, what is it you want the world to know about your community’s resiliency and about Jewish resiliency in general?
A: The Jewish people have survived and will survive. Despite the challenges, we stand strong, we stand united, and we move forward. To date, there are about 6, 000 Jews in Copenhagen and a few hundred in Århus, with others scattered around. This Passover, in addition to our regular seders here in Copenhagen, we also held seders in Århus.
We recognize that darkness is fought with light. So we are working to add in the light—to spread and increase it.
Think about the Second World War; of all the European nations, the Danish people were the ones who rescued their Jews by ferrying them over to relative safety in Sweden. They managed to evacuate most of Denmark’s 7, 500 Jews in a significant act of resistance against Nazi Germany. About 500 people were captured by the Nazis and taken away, although 450 returned. And during the time that the Jews were in Sweden, their homes, as well as the synagogues and Jewish school, were kept in proper condition by the Danish people. Denmark was the only country in the world where such a thing happened.
In fact, Monday marked 70 years since Denmark was freed from German occupation, an event that is celebrated here annually.
At the time, the Danish public responded with responsibility towards the Jewish people. We see the same today. In many ways, it is unique to this country. So yes, the community is moving forward—with the memory of Dan Uzan on their minds, a man killed while guarding a Jewish place of worship—to positive and better heights.