Finding Jewish community Ann Arbor to Switzerland

By Stacy Diève, special to the Washtenaw Jewish News

I expected a barrage of personal questions when filling out my family’s immigration paperwork for our Swiss residency permits, but asking our religion was not one of them.

Two years ago, my company offered my family and me an opportunity to move from Ann Arbor to the French-speaking part of Switzerland for a four-year assignment. It was the height of the COVID-19 pandemic when travel still felt like a distant dream. Our family had moved around a lot, but we’d been in Ann Arbor for seven years and had finally settled down. We had recently bought and started fixing up a charming old home, and our two children were very happy at school. We also had never felt more connected Jewishly, having found an extended family with the Ann Arbor Reconstructionist Congregation (AARC) and also being able to connect virtually with a wonderful Jewish Renewal synagogue near our old home in California. The idea of blowing up our lives was completely unnerving, but it felt like an opportunity of a lifetime that we couldn’t pass up.

As Switzerland is not part of the European Union, their immigration rules are very strict and controlled. Our permits, visas, and registration with authorities required mountains of paperwork on our family, work, financial, educational, criminal, and travel histories. What gave me the most pause though, was the question asking us to state our religion. The official reason the authorities ask this question is tax related. In most of Switzerland, declared affiliation with the Catholic or Reformed (Protestant) movements (which covers two-thirds of the adult population) triggers a direct income tax for the upkeep of the country’s churches. Everyone else, even other sects of Christianity, is exempt from a religion tax. Yet, the authorities still ask the question.

What I found most interesting though, is that 24% of the Swiss population declared no religious affiliation — compared to only 1% in 1970. What isn’t clear is, of that 24%, how many really are atheist or agnostic versus those that just didn’t want to answer.

Jews are only officially 0.2% of the Swiss population, but my guess is that this number is lower than reality due to hesitancy around an official declaration. I admit this question gave me grave pause, not because I’m anything but extremely proud of my Jewish heritage, but because of what authorities may ultimately do with this information. I have a profound lack of trust given Europe’s damaging Jewish history and current problems with antisemitism.

The Jewish population in Europe has decreased in every decade since WWII. The remnants of silent communities are prolific in so many parts of Eastern and Central Europe, with former synagogues and Jewish sites from Amsterdam to Krakow to Basel and beyond turned into museums, bookstores, or more likely turned into something else entirely. It’s a constant reminder of what might have been. While it seems that in many ways we are living in a more advanced and enlightened world, we had to go into this experience with our eyes open.

Upon hearing of our move, a dear editor friend of mine offered to put me in touch with a client of hers who was about to publish a book detailing the rise of antisemitism in Europe and how it led his family to leave their native home in Belgium. Over a Zoom call, he painted a concerning picture of how Jews are currently treated in Francophone Europe, especially Belgium and France, and how few Jews are choosing to remain. What I gathered from this conversation, as well as speaking to other Jews living throughout Switzerland that friends put me in touch with, is that the antisemitism issues are not nearly as bad in Switzerland, but it was still best if we kept a low profile.

We noticed immediately upon arrival that wearing religious symbols of any kind is generally discouraged in Switzerland. There is a cultural aversion to drawing attention to oneself, so it’s rare to see outward expressions of religion. In fact, in 2021, the Swiss narrowly passed a very controversial referendum banning burkas in public places. There is really no obvious way to know who might be Jewish in Switzerland unless you seek out a community.

It was easy to build a Jewish community when moving to Ann Arbor. The AARC embraced us immediately and our kids were part of tot-shabbat and Beit Sefer (religious school) programs. We also attended events at the JCC, had PJ library subscriptions for the kids and easily met other Jewish families at our kids’ public school. We were not going to easily recreate that experience moving to a small Swiss village where the last census reports the Jewish population to be only three people. Overnight, we were doubling it by virtue of our arrival.

Living halfway between two of Switzerland’s biggest cities, Geneva and Lausanne, we researched our synagogue options even though it would be a commute. We found no Reconstructionist congregations anywhere in Central Europe, let alone locally, and the closest Renewal congregation was 11 hours away in Berlin. Lausanne has an Orthodox synagogue and Geneva a Liberal one (Europe’s version of Reform), but neither fits our family. Zurich has a few more options, but is at the opposite end of the country. So, we began a journey to figure out how we are going to nourish our Jewish identity and maintain our connection to Judaism without a local community. This was with an added challenge of being in a country with only official Christian religions. All public holidays and even some of the public education revolve around Catholicism and Protestantism, not to mention that Geneva is the very birthplace of the Christian reformation.

Our first year in Switzerland was dominated by survival — immigration paperwork, getting the kids adjusted to going to school in a new country in a new language, finding our way in a new culture, and trying to learn enough French to start functioning. Now we are at the point where we can finally explore, discover, and embrace our new home, though we still struggle with how to have a meaningful Jewish life here. This feels especially pertinent around the Jewish holidays when we are used to being with our friends and community, and could easily find Jewish foods at Ann Arbor supermarkets or Zingerman’s. Finding a box of matzah in a more rural part of Switzerland became a project, resulting in us having to order it from French Amazon and have it delivered across the border to Switzerland. We learned though that holidays seem to be a time where Jews here will ask semi-cryptic signaling questions online to find information or each other, posting in local Facebook groups to ask where to find matzah meal or gelt. If you know, you know. One such post resulted in a secret Facebook group for Jewish families in Switzerland, but there are only 28 members across the country.

We’ve had to adjust our expectations, but what has saved us is the ability to maintain connections to our communities in the U.S. online. We are grateful that AARC offers live streaming of services and our congregation in California is still on Zoom, so we can join Shabbat morning services here on our Saturday nights with the time change. The Jewish Renewal Synagogue in Berlin is also still on Zoom, giving us an option to attend holiday events and Friday night services in our time zone. There is a popular local braided egg bread called tresse that feels very similar to Challah for us to buy on Shabbat and a traditional Swiss hat that looks like a yarmulke, feeling like a taste of home. We are still finding our way and don’t have all the answers yet, but we are still grateful for this incredible experience. It’s building resiliency for all of us that we hope will only strengthen our Jewish lives.

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