Monday’s inauguration of the Feldinger Chabad Jewish Center in Basel gives this historic Jewish city a new lease on the future. It is the first time in 80 years that a synagogue has been dedicated in Switzerland’s second-largest Jewish community.
Changing of the Guards: Old Community versus New
The city’s earliest Jewish settlements date back to the 12th century, yet Basel still enjoys a well established community that maintains many educational and social institutions. But as with other European cities, this one on the banks of the Rhine River has witnessed patterns of a dwindling Jewish population in recent years. Europe’s old Jewish communities have long suffered from anti-Semitism, assimilation and steady immigration to Israel.
“The exodus from the Diaspora,” as the trend is known, has left even long-standing institutions struggling to keep their constituents. So the opening a new synagogue in the city—the first since 1929—is somewhat of an anomaly, heralding a fresh outlook in contrast to what has been described by leading scholars as “the dying European Jewish Community.”
Shliach Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski, who co-directs Chabad-Lubavitch of Basel with his wife Devorah, attributes Chabad’s unique appeal to Basel’s unaffiliated Jews to this reversal.
“The communities here consist mainly of Jews who have lived here for years. They are generally very traditional and at some point, they find their way to Israel or other strong Jewish communities worldwide. There the chance of their children assimilating is smaller.”
Chabad in Basel, he explained, is drawing Jews who are typically younger, urban and unaffiliated. “They are successful and accomplished, yet feel a disconnect with anything related to Judaism or their heritage. When they come to our Chabad Center we begin building the foundations of a new community. Our community is open to all,” he said, with the objective of helping these Jews “experience the Jewish religion and culture in a meaningful way.”
With a whirlwind of Shabbos gatherings, holiday awareness campaigns, youth clubs and adult education classes, the Wishedski’s Jewish outreach is breathing new life into the declining status quo.
The warm and inviting Chabad community, which celebrated its 10th year anniversary this year, works well with the established Jewish community ("Israelitische Gemeinde Basel" – IGB), supplementing its activities.
Guy Rueff, President of the IGB, agrees. “We have a good working relationship and we have cooperated in the past in joint events. Chabad has clearly shown that it is an asset to the community.”
An Exciting New Center
The new Feldinger Chabad Jewish Center was sponsored by Miami-based philanthropist Sami Rohr in honor of the Feldingers, a Basel Jewish family who personally sheltered him during World Was II.
The center, which began hosting activities in 5768, is centrally located in the city in a building that used to house a non-kosher butcher shop. Wishedski describes the converted property, now boasting an elegant synagogue, social hall, lecture rooms and game room for children, as “architectural genius.”
“It is built in such a way that it is able to serve us for any possible event or activity. The furniture is almost like Lego in the way it connects and comes apart.”
The Center was packed at Monday’s ribbon-cutting ceremony with hundreds of Jews from Basel, as well as Rabbonim and dignitaries from around Europe.
Benefactor’s Personal Connection
Mr. Rohr's family had fled Lyon in unoccupied France in 5703 and was smuggled into Switzerland. When his parents were taken to a refugee camp in Morgin, Mr. Rohr was sent to a children's home near Basel. Soon after, some members of Basel's Jewish community took the refugee children home to care for them. Rohr was welcomed wholeheartedly into the home of Shlomo Zalman and Recha Feldinger, who treated him as a complete equal among their children.
Today, Mr. Rohr, patriarch of the distinguished Rohr Family, sees the new synagogue and Chabad center which is actively reinvigorating Jewish life in the city and ensuring Jewish continuity, as the ultimate way to continue their legacy.