Rabbi Simon I. Livson, 33, was born in Israel, to Finnish parents. When he was around seven, his parents moved back to Finland—Livson grew up there, serving in the Finnish National Army and earning a BA in in business administration at Helsinki Business Polytechnic.
He went back to Israel for rabbinical training, and lived and worked there, in New York, and in Connecticut as a rabbi, until he was selected and installed as the chief rabbi of Finland’s Jewish community in 2012.
For some context here, of Finland’s approximately 5.5 million people (about the same population as Central and Western New York combined), there are an estimated 1,400 Jews.
He is married to Israeli-born Sivan Lea Glazer; they have four children. He speaks Finnish, Hebrew, English, and “a bit of Swedish.” Livson answered questions by email. He arrives in Buffalo on October 7 to participate in FinnFest 2015, a celebration of all things Finn. Visit finnfestusa.org for more info and schedule.
You were appointed in 2013 as the first Finnish-speaking chief rabbi in Finland—and the youngest. What are your main responsibilities? They are numerous. I teach in the Jewish school when I have time. I conduct preparation classes for adult and child conversion. I do kashrut [kosher law] administration. I travel and speak to non-Jews about Judaism. I have classes at the community. I also do anything else that a community rabbi has to do, like funerals and weddings. The position is slightly political as well, since there are ongoing discussions with the authorities about kosher slaughtering and brit milah [Jewish male circumcision].
What have been your best opportunities and your biggest challenges so far? The most difficult thing is to get people more active. How does one make the non-Jews spouses feel that they are welcome into the community? This is important, since their children are often in the Jewish school.
The best opportunities are connected to the fact that I am Finnish and can teach and affect people in their mother tongue. I am also writing a book about the weekly Torah portion. I find constant opportunity, since a rabbi has the privilege of being in personal contact with so many different people, and from so many backgrounds.
What is the situation for Jewish people in Finland? The situation is decent at the moment: We are a minority, respected among the Finnish natives, since we have been here for about 150 years. Ritual slaughtering of animals is not allowed. Thank God we can still do circumcision here—there are a lot of people who want to condemn the act as barbaric.
These people are usually leftist/Green people who don’t want to understand what it means for the Jewish child, and the covenant that he shares with God through this act. People here are biased about it; they don’t want to discuss the proven health benefits it offers.
All in all it is still quiet in Finland—but anti-Semitism is growing here too. The recent incidents in Paris and Denmark made us think, and be more careful. Often we have a police car in front of the community, and, for the first time, we just got good monetary support for our own security.
What did your business administration education include? How has it helped you? I learned a bit about marketing and accounting, as well as project managing. That, combined with good people skills, has helped me. I have used it, for example, in establishing a local kosher agency. If you cannot sell; if you don’t understand more or less how a company is built and run, you cannot do that. People skills are important: caring about the other sincerely in everything you do.
What about coming to Buffalo for FinnFest appealed to you? It is always exciting to see new places. In this case there is a clear connection to Finland [through FinnFest], plus the fact that I am interested about Buffalo’s Jewish community. Also it happens that my colleague and classmate, Josh Strosberg [of the Kehillat Ohr Tzion Modern Orthodox synagogue in Williamsville], is serving as a rabbi in Buffalo, so I am very excited about meeting him too.
How did you feel when you were asked? It will be an honor for me to be present and represent Finnish Jewry. I was excited and am looking forward to the opportunity.
What do you think the benefit could be of a relationship with Buffalo’s Jewish community? Before having actually visiting Buffalo, I would say that there is a good basis for fruitful discussions between my community and the Jewish community of Buffalo. We might have some similar challenges and things to learn from each other.
Jana Eisenberg, a frequent contributor to The Public, is a Buffalo-based writer and editor.