In not-so-locked-down Sweden, Jews mourn victims, foster belonging

Malmo synagogue in Sweden. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Malmo synagogue in Sweden.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The coronavirus crisis has been hitting the Swedish Jewish community hard, with the disease claiming the lives of several members, including Holocaust survivors.
Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, Sweden has made headlines, especially for its authorities’ decision to implement relatively loose restrictive measures instead of the full lockdown that was chosen by the majority of countries. The government’s strategy has encountered both praise and criticism.
As of Wednesday, the country, with a population of 10 million, has registered more than 27,000 people infected and 3,300 victims. For comparison, Israel, with nine million people, has had about 16,500 cases and 262 deaths.
Among the limitations implemented, the authorities have banned gatherings of more than 50 people, closed high schools and universities – but not daycare centers and elementary schools – and encouraged people to adopt social-distancing practices.
“When the emergency started, I was very worried about our healthcare system,” Alice Humble, a Jewish dentist who lives in Gothenburg, Sweden’s second-largest city, told The Jerusalem Post. “I thought we did not have enough intensive-care beds and hospital beds in general. But I see that the system is managing. The number of beds has increased, and the situation is not as bad as I thought it would be.”
“However, I think that the government has failed when it comes to protecting the elderly, especially in nursing homes,” she said. “Unfortunately, we have seen it in the Jewish community as well.”
The system did not ensure adequate protection for residents of nursing homes. In the Jewish nursing home in Stockholm, several people succumbed to the virus, including Holocaust survivors.
In a message posted at the beginning of April, Aron Szugalski Verständig, chairman of the Jewish Assembly in Stockholm and the Jewish Central Council in Sweden, announced there had been eight funerals in a single week, a conspicuous number for a community that is estimated to have between 15,000 and 25,000 members.
While in normal times the people volunteering to participate in funerals to reach the quorum of 10 men required according to Jewish tradition were older members, many stepped up to help in this difficult situation, he said.
In general, the Jewish communities have been very cautious in implementing measures to safeguard their members and have displayed increased solidarity, Malmo Chief Rabbi Moshe David Hacohen told the Post.
“We did not have to close our synagogues, but we chose to do so way before it was even suggested,” he said. “I think it was very important to send a strong message from the beginning, also in consideration of the fact that more than half of the members of our community are over the age of 60.”
Among other things, the community has transferred its events to online and canceled summer camp for children for the upcoming season.
The communities in various cities have been affected in very different ways by the pandemic, Hacohen said. While Stockholm has registered many deaths, the southern part of Sweden, where Malmo is located, has had very few cases, he said.
Regarding the government’s strategy, Hacohen, who is Israeli, said it was too early to establish what is right or wrong since the whole world is struggling to understand what the most effective measures to contain the virus are.
“However, people here in Sweden have a very strong sense of personal responsibility,” he said. “They are making an effort to follow the guidelines, and this allows everyone to still be able to go out and certain activities to continue, but in a responsible way.
“I think that encouraging a sense of trust as opposed to a sense of fear is a positive approach. Also, it is important to remember that politicians here did not make any decision, but followed the opinion of medical experts.”
The community also has helped people maintain a sense of belonging, for example, making sure to regularly check in with all its older members, Hacohen said.
On Friday, for the first time in weeks, the synagogue in Malmo will open its doors again for the Kabbalat Shabbat service.
“We are going to do it while implementing very strict safety measures, making sure that everyone who comes is healthy, having people enter one at the time and sitting everyone away from each other,” Hacohen said. “We normally have 20 to 25 people coming. We are trying to get a sense of how many are interested in joining this time. If the number is much higher, we might need to do preregistration.”
“I feel the excitement in people stronger than before,” he said. “I see how much everyone is looking forward to being together again.”