The New York Jewish Travel Guide had the privilege of interviewing Mendel Rosenfeld, the esteemed Rabbi of the Zurich Chabad community, to gain insights into Jewish life and the vibrant community in Switzerland. Below, you’ll find an edited version of our enlightening conversation for improved clarity.
NYJTG: Thank you very much for your time, Rabbi. Could you please provide a brief introduction to yourself? How long have you been residing in Zurich, and what prompted your decision to come here? Additionally, how many Chabad centers are currently operational in Zurich?
Rabbi Mendel Rosenfeld: Certainly, I’d be happy to share. The Lubavitch Rebbe sent me to Zurich in 1982 with the mission of reviving Jewish community activities. This initiative aimed to engage those who had been less active in Jewish life, igniting a deeper passion for their heritage. Although I had little prior knowledge of Switzerland or the local language, I readily accepted the challenge. Over the years, I’ve had the privilege of getting acquainted with the region and its warm, welcoming people. As the Chabad headquarters in Switzerland, we have proudly served the community for 42 years, establishing additional centers in various Swiss cities by bringing dedicated Shlichim to these locations. On the opposite side of Lake Zurich, my brother leads the Chabad ESRA center, and to the south of Zurich, we have recently inaugurated a new center.
NYJTG: Could you describe the Jewish culture and community in Zurich? What are the demographics and the various groups that constitute the community?
Rabbi Mendel Rosenfeld: The Jewish community in Zurich is diverse and vibrant. Official census data suggests a Jewish population of between 8,000 and 10,000 residents, although the accuracy of these figures may be subject to debate. Among the prominent communities, the Israelitische Cultusgemeinde Zürich (ICZ) stands as the largest with the most members. Other significant groups include the Hasidic Agudath Achim community and the IRG German Jewish community. Furthermore, there are numerous smaller minyanim that convene every Shabbat, with at least 20 such gatherings, primarily in districts two and three. It’s important to note that Chabad does not view itself as a distinct, official community but rather as an open and welcoming home for all Jews. Our doors are open to everyone, irrespective of their background, as we strive to create a sense of belonging and unity within the broader Jewish community.
NYJTG: How do the residents generally perceive Chabad and the Jewish community?
Rabbi Mendel Rosenfeld: Fortunately, we do not encounter significant instances of antisemitism here in Switzerland, and it’s quite likely due to the prevailing Swiss mindset. Additionally, our positive and cooperative relationship with the government has contributed to a generally favorable environment. We feel safe and are not subjected to any forms of intimidation or threats while residing in Switzerland. This country is often regarded as one of the most welcoming and secure places to live in all of Europe. It’s particularly appealing for families with young children, given the lower crime rates and the reliability and punctuality of services. While occasional incidents may arise, I don’t believe they are any more prevalent here than in other areas. In my perspective, Switzerland offers a more favorable and secure environment compared to some other regions.
NYJTG: Do you host community-wide Passover seders and Sabbath dinners? Are the services conducted in Hebrew and German, and how many people typically attend?
Rabbi Mendel Rosenfeld: Our Chabad centers offer various services based on the specific needs of our community members and visitors. While tourists occasionally utilize Chabad for their food and other necessities in tourist destinations, the demand for these services during their stay in Zurich is relatively limited. For our Shabbat dinners, we primarily serve the local community, and we organize a community seder for at least 200 local attendees during Passover. However, we do accommodate some tourists who request Shabbat dinners, and I’ve had as many as 20 guests stay at my home for such occasions. Zurich is not inundated with tourists, but the presence of Chabad provides a valuable resource for travelers, allowing them to connect with Judaism and strengthen their connection during Shabbat.
NYJTG: Can you provide insight into the Jewish population in Zurich? Is it on the rise, declining, or holding steady? Are Jews in Zurich migrating to Israel or choosing to stay in Switzerland? Can you offer an estimate of the Jewish population in Zurich?
Rabbi Mendel Rosenfeld: According to official statistics, Switzerland is home to between 20,000 and 25,000 Jews. There was a significant wave of Aliyah (Jewish immigration to Israel) from Switzerland in the past, and many Swiss Jews now reside in Israel. However, in recent years, there hasn’t been a notable trend of Aliyah from our community, and many of those who had emigrated have returned. I would say that the overall size of the community has remained relatively stable. Over the past 15 to 20 years, we have seen an increase in new residents, primarily due to marriages with individuals from abroad. The community was more insular when I first arrived here 40 years ago, but now it has become more open and welcoming.
NYJTG: Is there a growing number of secular Swiss Jews who opt not to engage in organized Jewish life and instead choose intermarriage or relationships with non-Jewish partners? If so, what proportion of the community does this demographic represent?
Rabbi Mendel Rosenfeld: While I may not have extensive experience with this specific trend, I believe it mirrors patterns seen in other places. While I don’t have precise statistics, it’s safe to say that a significant percentage, possibly around 40 to 50 percent, may fall into this category. It’s worth noting that many individuals in interfaith relationships still express an interest in participating in Jewish life. As such, we extend a warm welcome to non-Jewish partners to join in community activities.
NYJTG: Do you receive non-Jewish visitors who are interested in learning more about Judaism and potentially converting?
Rabbi Mendel Rosenfeld: Yes, indeed, we do. However, Chabad does not directly perform conversions; we defer to the official Jewish communities for this process. These communities typically have a high demand for conversion inquiries, often exceeding their capacity to handle them all. It’s fascinating to see the level of interest among non-Jews in exploring Judaism and the possibility of conversion. When we encounter individuals who express such curiosity and a desire to learn, we provide them with information and connect them with representatives from the official Jewish community who can guide them through the conversion process if they wish to pursue it.
NYJTG: Does Chabad operate a kindergarten, elementary school, or daycare center? How many students are enrolled in these educational programs, and does Chabad host community events for holidays like Purim, Hanukkah, and Simcha Torah?
Rabbi Mendel Rosenfeld: While we do have a Sunday school tailored for families without strong religious affiliations, our primary educational institution serves approximately 50 pupils. It’s important to note that the largest Chabad school is in Geneva.
In terms of community events, we are active in organizing various gatherings and celebrations. For example, during our recent Purim celebration, we had the pleasure of hosting around 400 to 500 guests in a rented gymnasium, where we featured a captivating circus performance. This event was a wonderful way to engage the community and mark the festive occasion.
During Hanukkah, we traditionally light the menorah candle outside, and we were particularly honored this year to have the Mayor of Zurich attend and speak at the event.
While we don’t conduct street dances for Simcha Torah, we do embrace this joyful festival with singing and dancing. It’s heartening to see members from other communities and non-members join in the celebrations.
Additionally, we organize a monthly Shabbat dinner at the Hotel Belvoir in Ruschlikon, where local Jews can come together to savor delicious food, build a sense of community, and foster camaraderie. Our catering typically serves approximately 100 to 150 people, including many Jewish expatriates and foreign guests. Moreover, we are committed to teaching Hebrew to the expatriate children attending the Zurich International School, further strengthening our ties with the local community.
NYJTG: How does Chabad collaborate and engage with other Jewish communities when it comes to activities and events?
Rabbi Mendel Rosenfeld: While our primary focus is on serving the broader Jewish population, we maintain positive and cordial relationships with neighboring Jewish communities. It’s important to note that different Jewish groups often have their own specific activities catering to their members. For instance, the Hasidic community primarily serves Hasidic individuals, which is not our primary audience.
However, the atmosphere among the various Jewish communities in Zurich is harmonious, and we enjoy strong relationships with other rabbis and leaders. One notable event that fosters unity and collaboration is a biennial event we host. Our most recent gathering featured a classical concert with a 100-piece symphony orchestra at the town hall. The objective of such events is to unite, acquaint, and connect the diverse Jewish communities, paving the way for future initiatives.
NYJTG: We extend our sincere appreciation for your valuable time and the insightful information you’ve shared with us. Your perspectives will undoubtedly be of great interest to our readers. Thank you once again.
For more information:
Fly SWISS at https://www.swiss.com/us/en/homepage.
To contact Chabad Switzerland or to reserve a seat for a Shabbat dinner, email email@example.com.
Story by Meyer Harroch, New York Jewish Travel Guide, and New York Jewish Guide.com
The author took part in a press trip sponsored by Switzerland Tourism.