Paideia (Greek for “education”) was founded in 2000 amid controversy in the Swedish Jewish community, where some resentment still lingers despite the success of the program.
Primary funding came through a major grant from the Swedish government out of a sense of moral guilt for its supply of goods, including iron ore, to the Nazis during World War II, though its official position was one of neutrality.
Additional funding came from the Marianne and Marcus Wallenberg Foundation.
While a number of Holocaust survivors and others in the Jewish community hoped the state funds would go to existing synagogues or Jewish schools, the government preferred the establishment of a new institution that would encompass all of European Jewry.
It chose the proposal for a new program of academic excellence, and so Paideia was born.
Lena Posner-Korosi, a psychologist who was the lay president of the Swedish Jewish community at the time says the controversy was “tougher than any outside challenge” during her 10-year tenure, including last summer’s ugly charge in a Swedish tabloid that Israeli soldiers harvested organs from bodies of Palestinians during the 1980s and ‘90s.
She criticized Israel at the time for escalating that crisis, and added: “Israel is not always helpful here,” insisting that Swedish Jews are treated well and that “we know the players” in the government and prefer to handle delicate issues themselves.
Such issues include the banning of kosher slaughter since the 1930s (all kosher meat must be imported, and prices are very high) and opposition to brit milah since a 2001 law required that a doctor, using anesthesia, perform circumcision.
Like the overwhelming majority of Swedes, Jews, who first settled in the country in the late 18th century, are far more secular than religious. Posner-Korosi and other officials estimated that about half of the country’s 20,000 Jews (out of a national population of 10 million) officially belong to the Jewish community, which is highly organized.
She said her main accomplishments in office included professionalizing the staff, giving the community a respected voice in its dealings with the government, and “minimizing tensions with other religious groups,” primarily Christian.
One major source of tension, and open conflict at times, comes from the large number of Muslims who have emigrated from Arab countries and bring with them a strong bias against Israel and Jews, community leaders say. (In all, more than 500,000 Muslims have settled in Sweden in the last three decades).
Yet most Swedish Jews seem content, I was told, and resent The Four Questions they are asked most often by American Jewish visitors: Are you halachically Jewish? What denomination are you? Are you a victim of anti-Semitism? Why do you stay?
Gabriel Urwitz, a successful businessman and founding and present chairman of Paideia, says that Jewish life in Sweden is complicated in ways those questions don’t acknowledge. There is virtually no anti-Semitism in the society, except for in the Muslim community, he asserts. But while Swedes still support the legitimacy of Israel, they increasingly favor the Palestinians, who are viewed as the underdogs in the conflict.
Many in the Jewish community have strong ties to Israel, Urwitz said. He asserted that the most important and successful Jewish institution in Sweden is a three-week summer camp program for youngsters from 9 to 15.
“I’m not at all afraid we’ll disappear,” said Urwitz, who adds that his three adult children are “more secure Jewishly than I was at their age.”
The challenge, he says, is “the tricky balance” between focusing on religious and cultural needs.
“In a small community like ours,” he notes, “you have to be pragmatic.”