Sweden: Opening Jewish Learning

Sweden: Opening Jewish Learning

08 Feb 2017

JEU's very own Paideia is opening doors to a new educational initiative, a Jewish 'Cultural College', first of its kind. We spoke to Noa Hermele, rector of Paideia Folkhögskola.

What is this new Paideia programme?

Paideia Folkhögskola (as it’s called in Swedish) is a sister organisation to Paideia the academic institute, and we translate it with ‘Paideia Cultural College’.

The Cultural College is a Nordic concept that is difficult to translate, but the basic idea behind it is that different movements in society should be able to provide free adult education. It started in the 19th century to give peasants and labourers the opportunity to educate themselves. The state recognized its benefits - not only for the sake of the individuals enrolled in the educational initiatives but also for the country - it educated people in line with the state’s interests, allowing them to better contribute to society. This is the main idea behind what is called ’Folkbildning’ - , ‘Popular education’. The structure has been functioning in Sweden for 150 years, and all kinds of different movements have their own colleges, for example the Christian churches, the Sobriety movement, the Women’s rights movement, the Labour movement and so on.

Ten years ago, the first Folkhögskola with a Muslim profile was founded and now is the first time that we start a College with a Jewish profile. It’s important to add that the College isn’t oriented exclusively towards a specific - it’s not that a Jewish College is only open to Jews or that the Labour movement’s school is only for organized union members. Rather, the College is open for everyone.


Where did the initiative come from and how did it all come together?

There are a number of different factors that made this possible. The Jewish community in Sweden has conducted adult education for as long as they have been in Sweden - about 250 years, so the idea that there should exist adult Jewish education is not new. But for historical reasons, and because of the way our society has been structured, Jewish education has always been outside of the regular educational system, and exclusively funded by the Jewish community.

Sweden recognizes five historic minorities: The Sami, the Swedish Finns, the Tornedalers, the Roma and the Jews.

Fifteen years ago, Jews received the status of a historic minority in Sweden, according to the European Council, making them one of five historic minorities within Sweden.

This started a movement where society began to say, “Jewish culture is part of the history of Sweden so it should also be included in the regular national educational system, as part of the curriculum and at the universities” - recognizing that there should be an awareness of different historic minorities in Sweden at all the different levels.

This was one of the processes making it possible to establish the Folkhögskola. At the same time, Paideia started to cooperate with Kista - the Folkhögskola with a Muslim profile. We ran various projects together that dealt with strengthening minorities in Sweden, civil society organisations and religious studies. So Kista inspired the idea of opening a Jewish-profile College, and the final factor that made it happen was an explicit interest from the Jewish communities in Sweden in forming this kind of educational institute.

Abdulkader Habib, rector of Kista Folkhögskola with Noa Hermele, credit: Jonatan Agami

How do you see this movement currently fit in the contemporary Swedish political climate?

There are two opposite movements in Sweden right now, as in many countries - one movement is that of the nationalistic and populist parties that say, ”we have to see to the national culture and protect the borders of the country”, closing countries off. At the same time, there is another movement in Sweden in the last twenty years or so saying, “You need to talk about Swedish culture and Swedish history not only in terms of national culture”. So for example the National Museum of History (in Stockholm) has been redefining how they look at Swedish history, and we have cooperated with them.


What is the format of the programme and what does the curriculum consist of?

There are three components of the College right now. This is due to the way all Cultural Colleges are built from a structural point of view.

One part is something called ‘General courses’, which is something that all Cultural Colleges in Sweden do. It is mandated by the state, and the aim is to educate people towards university entry or labour market entry (this is intended for those who, for whatever reason, did not complete high school). This part, we are doing together with Kista. We want to give an intercultural profile to these courses, working together with the Muslim college, but also in general to see what role religion plays in Sweden today, what is the role of the minorities and what does citizenship mean in Sweden today?

The second part consists of Jewish Studies, and we very much have been inspired by the experience of Paideia the academic institute. There, the main focus is on Jewish texts and languages, but also on Jewish culture and expressing yourself and reinterpreting Jewish culture. Paideia the academic institute focuses on Europe and European participants, and on strengthening Jewish culture and life in Europe. The Paideia Cultural College will also be using some of the Paideia tools, courses and ideas, but extending its reach to a general audience in Sweden who are interested in Jewish culture. So the College will be a more ‘popular’ version of what Paideia is been doing in Europe.

The final part consists of the courses that we can do together with Kista College, such as text courses on the Torah and the Qur’an - these will be inter-religious courses. Right now, we are starting a small-scale conversation about Anti-semitism - how to combat Anti-semitism in Muslim communities and Muslim organisations, which is sometimes an issue. Creating these kinds of meetings and a platform for conversation is a way of combating prejudices and Anti-semitism. Similar ideas will grow organically when we see what the interests and the needs of the Swedish society and the different minorities are.

Inaugural conference, credit: Jonatan Agami

What do you think is it that draws non-Jewish students to this programme?

The Jewish population in Sweden is very small - they say that there are some 20,000 Jews. There are around 6,000 members of the Jewish communities but there are of course many people who are not members of a Jewish community. At the same time, as in many European countries, there are people who might have Jewish origins even though they don’t define themselves as Jewish. That is actually quite a large number of people, and they are getting more and more interested in their heritage and their past, and not least because of the minority status that was granted in 2000. There are also large numbers of people in general society that don’t have any connection to Judaism, but are curious about Jewish culture...

There is also an interest in issues of integration, how to live with various traditions and cultures, especially today, in light of the debate going on about migration, and about the effects that this has on Sweden as well as on how it impacts the migrants. I think these are issues that the Jewish culture doesn’t necessarily have the answers to, but has been struggling with and working with.

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