Judaism in Switzerland
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Ruth Dreifuss
Ms Ruth Dreifuss, president of the Swiss Confederation
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The prosperous Swiss Jewish community lives in harmony with the rest of the population. In 1999, Switzerland was one of the first countries in the world to be governed by a Jewish president, Ms Ruth Dreifuss.

A few celebrities...
Many Jews settled in Switzerland, such as businessman Nessim Gaon, owner of the magnificent Noga Hilton in Geneva, Edmond Safra, who for a long time ran his banking empire from Switzerland, or the Maus and Nordmann families, owners of the Manor group, one of the three major store chains in Switzerland, or raider Asher Edelman, who had his museum of modern art built on the shores of Lake Geneva.

But businessmen are not the only famous Jews to have lived in Switzerland. Albert Cohen, Corfu-born writer, who was raised in Marseilles and came to Geneva to study without ever leaving the city where he wrote his award-winning novel Belle du Seigneur, or Elias Canetti, 1981 Nobel Literature prize winner, who spent 5 years in Zurich. We could also cite philosopher Jeanne Hersch, literary critic Jean Starobinski, or Paul Guggenheim, the most eminent international law expert, violinist Yehudi Menuhin, or composer Ernest Bloch. But the most famous of all is without a doubt Albert Einstein, who spent his entire youth in Switzerland, obtained his Doctorate in Physics from the renowned Federal Polytechnic Academy in Zurich and was employed as examiner at the Swiss patent office.

The Geneva Synagogue

Located at the heart of the financial district, the newly renovated Geneva Synagogue is where the funeral service for banker Edmond Safra was held.

The beginnings
Before the founding of the Swiss Confederation (1291), there were already Jews in the present-day Swiss territory. In fact, the presence of Jews is attested as early as 1213 in Basle. Coming from Germany and France, they traveled along the rivers to Bern, Zurich, Geneva, St Gallen, Lucerne, Vevey, Neuchâtel, Fribourg and many other cities.
Banished during the fifteenth century, they obtained protection and the right to reside in two villages in the Aargau canton, Lengnau and Oberendingen.

Western Yiddish
The Jews of the Surb Valley spoke a particular Western Yiddish dialect, traces of which can be still found today in the region, a mix of High German dialects, blended with Hebrew and Armenian words, and inklings of Romance languages. Contrary to Eastern Yiddish, which is spoken by Polish and American Jews, Western Yiddish has almost disappeared. Today there are but a scarce few, mostly elderly, who know the dialect of the Surb Valley Jews. That is why the University of Zurich Sound Archives have begun recording what is left of this language on the road to extinction, just as they have done for other Swiss dialects.

Equal rights
Legal freedom was granted to all religious communities by the 1874 Constitution, of which article 49 recognizes that the freedom of conscience and belief is inviolable. The Jews of the Surb Valley immigrated to the big Swiss cities. During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, many Jews from Alsace, Germany and Eastern Europe added to this core group. In 1920, the Jewish population had reached its peak at 21,000 people, a figure that has remained almost constant ever since.

A few demographics
According to the 1990 census, Switzerland counts approximately 20,000 Jews, or 0.3% of the total population. Although the number of Jews has remained fairly stable since the thirties, their relative share has decreased proportionally. This plateau is due to immigration, without which Swiss Jews could not have prevented a demographic setback, linked to an aging population and the many mixed marriages.
In terms of the cantons, only Zurich, Basle-City, Geneva and Vaud have a Jewish community exceeding 1,000 people. One third of Swiss Jews reside in the canton of Zurich (6,252 people).

  • Ashkenazim
    Following the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, and the crushing of Prague Spring in 1968, immigrants poured into Switzerland. There were many Jews among the refugees to whom Switzerland generously opened its doors.
  • Sephardim
    The Jews of Egypt and North Africa, forced to leave their homeland in the wake of decolonization and because of conflict in the Near East, settled mainly in French-speaking Switzerland, where they found a new homeland. Their contribution to the community does not stop at statistics; they brought new blood, a human touch, as well as another Jewish tradition. Contrary to the many apprehensions, there was no cultural conflicts between the already established Ashkenazim Jews and the newly arrived Sephardim Jews, who quickly filled important roles within the various communities.
  • Orthodox Jews
    A community of Orthodox Jews settled in Zurich, creating a lively quarter much like in Antwerp or New York. Unlike in other European cities, where certain Jewish quarters do not have a single kosher restaurant, the Swiss capital is home to an extremely dynamic Orthodox community with thriving traditions.

An organized and united community
Swiss Jews are well-matched with their country: they are not strong in number, but well organized. The Swiss Federation of Jewish Communities (FSCI), the umbrella organization for Jews, is comprised of 23 autonomous communities. Its statutes do justice to the religious diversity and heterogeneousness of the different collectivities: "the communities affiliated with the FSCI enjoy absolute independence as regards religion and all other domains".
The Swiss Federation of Jewish Communities is a unique body that is representative of the extreme diversity of Judaism within one country. In most of the countries of the Diaspora, the Jews have long since separated into different organizations, anywhere from right-wing Orthodox to left-wing progressive liberal. Despite an increasing polarization within the Swiss Jewish community as well, we have to date always been able to find a "Swiss compromise". As such, the most dissimilar communities find themselves under the same roof. The Orthodoxy, turned towards home life, are seeking to preserve strict beliefs, perpetuate tradition and further their knowledge of Judaism; the Unitarian communities provide a spiritual base all the while offering cultural and social activities for everyone, whether traditional Jew or not. Although the synagogue still represents the center of religious life, a wide range of activities take place there to meet the most varied needs: conferences and adult education courses are organized, the elderly are taken care of, there are social provision associations, as well as discotheques for the young people, daycare centers and a Jewish day school in certain communities.

Business and finance
The Jews play a fairly important role in the textile and clock-making industries, as well as manufacturers or wholesalers. Switzerland’s largest, most decisive industry (machinery, chemicals) does not as such count any Jewish representatives, nor do they occupy a forefront position with the big banks. They do, however, own several private banks such as the Republic National Bank of New York and the Discount Bank & Trust Company. Jews figure in the professions as doctors, dentists, pharmacists, lawyers, engineers and artists, although they count few in the public service and press. But the most well-known Jewish figure in Switzerland is undoubtedly Ruth Dreifuss, who entered the federal government in 1993 and became Switzerland’s first woman president.

Jewish press:


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