Doctors, human-rights advocates and members of the Jewish and Muslim communities have joined politicians for a circumcision debate in the Danish parliament.

It took place a day after the publication of a poll showing that 74 per cent of Danes support a ban on non-medical male circumcision.

Dan Rosenberg Asmussen, chairman of the country’s Jewish Community, said the local media was “filled with misinformation about circumcision and its effects”. He added: “I’m not at all surprised about the outcome of the survey”.

During the hearing, the Danish Health and Medicines Authority’s director general, Else Smith, said a ban is not justified because the risks are not serious enough.

But two Danish parties and the country’s children’s ombudsman support a ban because they believe circumcision violates children’s rights.

The Jewish community has set up a task force to inform Danish politicians and others on the matter.

“The tactic among those who oppose non-medical male circumcision is to convince more and more MPs that it is wrong, in the hope that a proposition for an outright ban will be put forward in parliament. So far there has been no such proposition and our job is to see to it that it doesn’t happen,” Mr Rosenberg Asmussen said.

He also stressed that a ban would likely constitute a violation of freedom of religion, which is guaranteed under Danish legislation.

In recent years, there have been heated debates about circumcision in Scandinavia. In 2013, ombudsmen and medical professionals from across the region met in Oslo, Norway and issued a common statement claiming that non-medical circumcision on boys under 18 breaches the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Norway’s foreign minister later vowed that the country would not ban circumcision, though restrictions have been enforced so that the practice can now only be carried out at hospitals.

In 2013, following the publication of a study on the health risks and benefits of circumcision, the Danish Health and Medicines Authority determined that there was not enough evidence to merit either banning or encouraging male circumcision.

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Sweden may be the sixth largest country in Europe, but 85 percent of the population lives on less than 1.5 percent of the land. Housing prices have tripled since 1996 and apartment prices in Stockholm, the capital, have risen 20 percent over the past two years.

In other words, residential property is out of reach for many and, with new construction happening at a snail’s pace, Swedes on the hunt for homes sometimes have to get creative.

When architect Karin Matz returned to Stockholm after spending some time abroad, she wanted to find a perfect yet affordable living space where she could add personal touches. She set a tough task for herself, but finally came across an ad for a nearly 390-square-foot, single-room space with a ceiling height of about 9 feet. It had been used as furniture storage for roughly three decades.

“The previous owner gutted this place in the early ’80s and started renovating it,” Matz said. “But I understand he was in an accident and was disabled. The space was left in some kind of half-finished state and used for storing furniture for 30 years. When the man died, his family decided to sell the property.”

Diamond in the Rough

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For Matz, it was a real find. The first-floor space is in a building that dates back to 1920s and is in one of the most desirable addresses in Stockholm, in the hip Södermalm district and with a magnificent view overlooking Riddarfjärden, a bay of Lake Mälaren.

Still, many would have been put off by the state of the space, which had no functioning electricity, peeling wallpaper, crumbling ceilings, a faucet sticking out of one wall and rat droppings covering the bathroom floor. But for Matz, it was ideal.

“These kinds of places don’t come around often in Stockholm,” said Matz, explaining that she was hunting for a “raw space” that she could make her own. “I would never buy a totally renovated apartment. It would be hard to buy a place with a perfectly fine kitchen, for instance, and then tear it out just because I happened to think it didn’t look good. That kind of waste of resources is not my thing.”

However, in Stockholm, properties usually are spiffed up before they’re put on the market. “Generally, you can only find apartments that are renovated, styled and very expensive,” Matz said.

Space Is Precious

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During the nearly two years that Matz spent searching for a home, she saw just one other interesting space: an old store that was to be converted into an apartment. But she thinks more and more non-residential spaces will, in time, be turned into homes in Stockholm—including basements and attics, bike rooms, laundry rooms and storefronts.

“Everything that could potentially be turned into an apartment will be,” Matz said, “because every square meter is precious … . In fact, there aren’t many non-furbished attics left in Stockholm today.”

However, legal restrictions come into play when you’re converting storage spaces into homes. For Swedes who rent apartments, access to storage space is a requirement under Sweden’s Rent Act. Attempts by landlords to move or reduce storage spaces in apartment buildings often lead to legal disputes.

‘Irrestible’ Story
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Matz encountered no such complications.

“The story behind the place was just irresistible to me. There was a romantic air over, it and I wanted to keep that history alive somehow,” Matz said.

She kept some of the old wallpaper, the original floors and concrete walls to let clues of that history remain within the design while at the same time making the place habitable, installing all the appliances and amenities required for modern living.

“I wanted a walk-in-closet and a luxury bath,” Matz said, “and I wanted the renovation to be inexpensive.”

Divide and Conquer

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With the help of a handyman, Matz divided the space into two sections. One fits a single structure that is built with IKEA kitchen units, and includes a walk-in closet and a storage space fitted under a loft bed. Next to it is a modern kitchen with a large window. “It’s great to have this amazing view of the water while cooking and eating in here,” Matz said.

The other section sports a less finished feel, as original surfaces have been preserved. Only loose wallpaper and paint have been peeled off. Electrical cables and outlets have been added; they run along the outside of the walls. The bathroom connects the two sections and features a shower, which also functions as a bath thanks to a raised floor.

“You have to step into it, either from inside the bathroom or from the living room, where you can enter through a glass door,” Matz said. “That means you get the view of the water from the bath, too. When you fill it up, it’s almost like a swimming pool.”

Smart Makeover

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A number of smart features are present, like doors and double walls hiding amenities such as a washing machine and laundry bin in the bathroom. Large blinds can be pulled down in front of the loft bed to create the feeling of a separate room.

Meanwhile, the bathroom door boasts three uses. It’s been fitted with a message board on one side and a mirror on the other. When left fully open, the mirror makes the studio apartment feel larger and airier. A third function is that it has a lock and clicks onto the front door, offering added security and sound reduction.

In the end, it was a combination of persistence and luck that led to Matz finding her ideal home: a neglected space in central Stockholm that she could transform into a practical and aesthetically pleasing home.

October 14th, 2014

Swedes get a female rabbi

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Sweden will get its first female rabbi when Ute Steyer of New York’s Yeshiva University takes up the post at the Great Synagogue of Stockholm in January.

“I expect there will plenty of challenges in the beginning,” Ms Steyer said. “First, it will take some time before people get used to having a female rabbi. Second, this is a rather secular and culturally oriented community. I have to find the right balance between the religious and the intellectual aspects of Judaism in my role as rabbi.”

Ms Steyer believes the reason it has taken relatively long for Sweden to get a female rabbi is down to the size of the community. “We’re not as diverse as other communities in the US and Europe. It takes time before getting past certain thresholds, like hiring a woman for a post that for centuries has been occupied by men.”
Ingrid Lomfors, president of the Stockholm Jewish Community, said the “time is ripe” for a female rabbi. “We’re part of the Swedish society, which is an equal society and we must also start working with those questions in earnest,” she said.

Ms Steyer grew up in London, Athens and Berlin. She speaks fluent Swedish, having worked at Ericsson and the Chamber of Commerce in Stockholm in the 1990s. She also studied at the University of Lund in southern Sweden. In 2009, she received her Rabbinic Ordination (S’mikha) from the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.

Stockholm’s Great Synagogue is affiliated with Masorti Europe.