Manfred and Anne Lehmann Foundation

How One Jew Saved Yiddishkeit in His Country

Jews have lived in Sweden since about 1755. By the beginning of this century, Sweden was enveloped in Reform Judaism and assimilation. World War I (1914-1918), however, brought a contingent of observant Jews to the country to whom Reform was anathema. The Reform congregation-called "Mosaic Congregation"—was headed by a rabid Reform rabbi, named Ehrenpreis, who originally had been a learned yeshiva bachur in Galicia. However, his life was the story of a turncoat.

After taking on a rabbinical position in a Reform community in Bulgaria, he spurned authentic Judaism. He even turned against his erstwhile Zionist colleagues: In 1897 he had been Theodore Herzl's secretary for the First Zionist Congress in Basel, but by 1913 he had accepted the post of Chief Rabbi of Sweden on condition that he forswear Zionism. (In 1933 when Hitler came to power, Ehrenpreis became, again, a Zionist.)

Whatever was left of authentic Judaism in Sweden disintegrated under his leadership. The handful of observant Jews had a giant fight on their hands to save kashrus, Jewish education and the mikveh. My late father, Hans Lehmann, was a leading spokesman for Torah-true Judaism and often engaged in sharp debates with the Reform in town. The most erudite and explicit document he left behind is the following statement in defense of the mikveh in Stockholm, written 74 years ago. With or without help by Reform Jews, the mikveh in Stockholm survived.

During World War II, Ehrenpreis was accused by Christian Parliament members of doing less than the Christians themselves did to save German refugees. It goes without saying that his children and grandchildren intermarried and are today Christians.

After World War II a large influx of German, Polish and Hungarian Jews—survivors of the Holocaust—came to Sweden and totally revived Jewish life. The memory of the Reform Rabbi Ehrenpreis, for his disloyalty to Judaism and Zionism, is of course tarnished until this day. My father—product of the enthusiasm for Judaism planted in him by his teacher, Rabbi Ephraim Carlebach of Leipzig—always distrusted the Reform. His distrust for Ehrenpreis was sadly vindicated.

My father's example shows how even one staunch defender of Judaism can win a historic battle for our survival.... We can all learn from his example. His life illustrated the prophetic verse, "G-d's paths are straight, the righteous advance on them, while the wicked stumble on them" (Hoshea 14:10).

May his memory be blessed.

Here is my father's statement in defense of the Stockholm mikveh.

"The following statement is submitted on my own behalf and on behalf of my associates, Mr. Heyman Nathan and Jacob Ettlinger, in response to the statement of August 30 issued by Dr. Ehrenpreis:"

As is well known, my associates and I submitted a request on January 6, 1922, for a declaration of support by the Mosaic Community of Stockholm for an annual subsidy of S.Cr. 1500 for the maintenance of the local ritual bath (Mikveh). Dr. Ehrenpreis, the chief rabbi, gave his promise at the time to approve such a subsidy. We are therefore profoundly surprised to learn of the devastating and critical attack by Dr. Ehrenpreis against a Mikveh in general, and in Stockholm in particular.

Before I respond in detail to his statement, I wish to point out that there exists in Stockholm—a fact some of your members may be ignorant of—in the southern part of our capital a traditional congregation based on traditional Jewish values. Its name is "Adass Yisroel." Its constitution stresses prominently the support of a Mikveh. Furthermore, I wish to point out that within the last few years, the maintenance of the Mikveh was entirely supported financially by members of said traditional congregation. This Mikveh has recently been renovated in order to comply totally to the religious requirements involved.

Until now the financial contribution by the gentlemen who sign this petition amounts to about S.Cr. 400-500. However, the Mikveh has now been forced to present to us a new contract, which imposes a substantial financial burden on us in order to comply with the annual expenditures. This obligation we cannot assume by ourselves without the contribution by the Mosaic Congregation. Closing down the Mikveh is unthinkable. On the other hand it is unthinkable for traditional Jews to see the Mikveh cease to exist. I therefore take the liberty to renew my petition to give a favorable response to our new request.

We are forced to express our profound surprise that the leadership of the Mosaic Congregation has simply put aside our petition. Being a minority within the community, it would seem to us that you are guided by the slogan "Might Makes Right." Such a policy corresponds neither to the Jewish concept of Law, nor the maxims of modern Liberalism. Even if our traditional co-religionists cannot insist on a place in the sun, I nevertheless believe they have the right to expect understanding for their religious convictions. And so little is requested by us: an annual contribution of S.Cr. 1500 for a flawless compliance with the Jewish requirements especially for the maintenance of the Mikveh.

The claim of Dr. Ehrenpreis that the need for a ritual bath in Stockholm does not exist is incorrect. I enclose documentary evidence by the bath installation, that during the past five years about 1,880 persons made use of it. Such a number is proof enough that the existence of a Mikveh is a necessity. I am of the opinion that it is part of the duties of a Liberal congregation also to accommodate the convictions of dissidents, if their requirements are justified. In today's political climate, the needs and aspirations of minorities are met to the widest possible degree. Why should such tolerance not also be extended to the requirements within Jewish communities?

Even Christian scholars, without necessarily being philo-Semites, have had to admit during past centuries that the survival of the Jewish people in its excellent form can be traced to the exemplary chastity and family purity. These virtues in our people are entirely based on the institution of the Mikveh and its symbolism. To deny this truism and the value of the Mikveh would be an historical untruth.

As to the claim by Dr. Ehrenpreis that there is no theological foundation for the Mikveh but that the Mikveh in oldest times was merely used for hygienic reasons, I rebuff this claim totally. As our previous statement emphasized, the purifying spiritual and emotional influence of the Mikveh is of paramount importance, and it is regrettable that Dr. Ehrenpreis ignored the cardinal biblical commandment for the Mikveh, as found in Leviticus 11:36: "Akh mayon u'bor mikveh mayim yihiyeh tahor. . ." This reference proves clearly that the institution of the Mikveh is a basic religious command in the Jewish religion, side-by-side with the oral tradition.

I also take the liberty of disagreeing with Dr. E's claim that 45 percent of all Jewish communities have eliminated the Mikveh. Claims based on such statistics are totally unreliable. Even in such communities as Genoa, Copenhagen and Oslo, where Torah-true Jews are in the minority, the communities consider it a call of duty and honor to comply with all Jewish laws.

The Reform rabbis whom you mention as "authorities" are by no means authorities. (e.g., Stein, Geiger), nor are their opinions respected widely. These extreme rabbis occupy, in Germany, a tiny minority within German Jewry and have never been accepted as authoritative by the Jewish masses until this day. I will avoid quoting Reform rabbis and their ideas, in order to avoid disagreement, friction and strife within our community.

Even though the Mosaic Congregation of Stockholm has refrained from supporting the Mikveh in the past, there is no reason to assume that this sad state of affairs will also continue in the future. On the contrary, I consider it honorable and desirable to change and correct the attitude, so that the shortcomings of the past can be corrected. But my main point is that for the sake of unity and harmony in our community, the needs of the minority be recognized and met.

I appeal, that in the interest of peace your Council approve our justified request for a contribution of S.Cr. 1500. Otherwise we will not waive our rights, and will, in the case that our request is turned down, find other ways to defend our legal rights.

 

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