According to the estimates of Estonian government’s statistics department, Estonia is home about 1,971 Jews. Almost extinct at one-point, Estonian Jewry has enjoyed a rebirth that has seen a complete revival in Jewish religious and cultural life in the last 15 years. Estonian Jews are almost entirely Ashkenazi and share regional programs with the neighboring Jewish communities in Latvia and Lithuania. The Jewish community in Estonia is represented by the Jewish community of Estonia – the Estonian affiliate of the World Jewish Congress.
Individual Jews lived in Estonia as early as the fourteenth century, but there was no permanent Estonian Jewish community until the mid-nineteenth century. Tsar Alexander II lifted a centuries old prohibition on Jewish settlement in the region in 1865, and allowed Jews to enter Estonia. Many of these initial Jewish settlers were former soldiers who had served with Russian garrisons in the region, and shortly after their arrival in Estonia, Jews from other Baltic states began trickling into Estonia.
In the successive decades after the formation of the first Jewish communities in Estonia, the Jewish population spread to cities throughout the country. The majority of Estonian Jews at this time were tradesmen and artisans. A “Jewish renaissance” of sorts occurred in the early years of the twentieth century.
The establishment of the Republic of Estonia as an independent state in 1918 marked a new era for Estonian Jews. Members of the Jewish community had fought in the war of independence, and Estonia displayed tolerance towards all inhabitants of the territory from the onset of its independence. The newly installed government actively sought to combat discrimination and persecution, and as a result, Estonian Jewry was able to grow politically and culturally in the years following the first world war.
Estonian Jewry, along with other minorities in Estonia, enjoyed complete cultural autonomy in the 1920s. The Jewish Cultural Council acted as the community’s administrative body, and a number of Jewish religious, cultural, and political institutions were formed in Estonia during the inter-war years.
However, anti-Semitism began to creep into the country in the late 1930s, as Estonian nationalist groups, encouraged by Nazi Germany, began to espouse anti-Semitic sentiments and attack local Jews. Despite such troubling proceedings, the Estonian Jewish community’s autonomy remained untouched until the country’s annexation by the Soviet Union in 1940. The arrival of the Soviets saw the termination of autonomy for all minority groups, and though the Jewish community saw all its political and cultural institutions closed, several Estonian Jews were appointed to official state positions.
The aftermath of World War II and the Holocaust saw the return of many Jews who had fled to the Soviet Union. Jewish cultural life did not resume, however, as the policies of the Communist party in occupied states were hostile to “foreign” influences. As a result, Jewish life in Estonia was dormant, if not almost extinct, during the Communist era. The only vestige of Judaism in Estonia was related to religious practices, which were conducted privately.
Due to the difficulty in gaining admittance to most institutions of higher education in the Soviet Union, many young Jews from other parts of the U.S.S.R. came to Estonia to study at the University of Tartu. Estonia was generally more welcoming to Jews than other parts of the Soviet Union and those who arrived found life in Estonia to be relatively stable.
In 1989, as the Soviet Union began to slowly disintegrate and influence was weakened, Jewish organizations and institutions began gradually popping up in Estonia. The Jewish Cultural Society was formed and shortly after, a Jewish day school and other cultural clubs were established.
Estonian independence was restored in 1991 and Estonian Jews were once again able to defend their rights as a national minority. The Jewish Community was established in 1992, and for the first time in almost 50 years, Jewish life in Estonia had institutional support and representation. Today, Estonian Jewry continues to experience a rebirth in Jewish religious and cultural life.
Soviet occupation, though extremely detrimental to the practice of Jewish life in Estonia, was largely limited to the cultural and social oppression of Estonia’s Jews. Things changed with the Nazi invasion of Estonia in 1941. With the Nazi army advancing, the Soviet Union deported some 500 Jews regarded as “dangerous social elements” to Siberia. Almost all remaining Jews – around 3,000 people - were able to escape Estonia due to the amount of time it took for the Germans to eventually conquer Estonia.
Those who remained were not as fortunate. Almost all of the 1,000 remaining Jews in Estonia were murdered by year’s end. This was largely done through collaborative efforts on the part of the Estonian police.
After the murder of Estonian Jewry, the Nazis began establishing concentration camps in Estonia. This was part of a larger plan to use the occupied Baltic states – Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania – as killing sites. Vaivara, a transit and work camp, and Klooga, a labor camp, serve as the more infamous camps established in Estonia. From 1942 to 1942, more than 20,000 Jews from ghettos in Vilna and Kovno (Kaunas) and other parts of Europe were transported to Estonia. Some were murdered upon arrival while others worked in the labor camps, providing resources for the German war machine.
During this time, native Estonians were recruited into the Waffen SS. Units of the Estonian Home Guard also collaborated with the Nazis and were directly involved in genocidal actions against Jews and the Roma.
The advancement of the Red Army in 1944 saw thousands of Jews evacuated from Nazi camps in Estonia and moved to Germany and other locations. Around 2,500 prisoners in the Klooga camp were massacred by the Germans in a last-ditch effort to “evacuate” the camp. Only about 85 prisoners were able to survive, with some reporting that non-Jewish Estonians helped them do so.
By the time Estonia was liberated in September 1944, only about 100 Jews, who had been transferred to Estonia from other countries, were found still alive.
Statistics Estonia, the Estonian governmental agency within the Ministry of Finance, places the Estonian Jewish population at about 1,971 people out of a total population of 1,320,174. This is consistent with Hebrew University demographer Sergio DellaPergola’s estimate that there were 2,000 Jews in Estonia as of 2015.
Most Estonian Jews live in Tallinn, the country’s capital, but there are other communities in cities such as Tartu, Narva, and Kohtla-Järve.
The Jewish Community of Estonia acts as the representative communal body for Estonian Jewry. In recent years it has experienced active and rapid growth, with an increase in membership and its abilities to provide Jewish-related activities for its members. Moreover, it shares many regional programs with neighboring Baltic Jewish communities in Latvia and Lithuania.
There is a Community Programs Centre in Tallinn that offers a number of Jewish programs and conferences and acts as a center for Jewish life in the capital. Special attention is paid to elderly members of the Estonian Jewish community, with a number of Jewish clubs available to them. The Social Centre of the Jewish Community of Estonia operates out of 9 cities in Estonia and works as a relief organization that provides financial assistance to members of the Estonian Jewish community in need. WIZO is also active in Estonia, and helps aid socially and economically disadvantaged members of the community.
Every year, the Estonian Jewish community hosts a forum called “Jahad,” meaning “together” in Hebrew. “Jahad” attracts participants and lecturers from around the Jewish world who discuss a number of topics relating to various facets of Jewish life – religious, cultural, political, academic, etc. There are also options available for children interested in attending.
In terms of Jewish religious in Estonia, there is only one functioning synagogue: “Beit Bella” in Tallinn. Beit Bella is recently built and is presided over by Rabbi Efraim Shmuel Kot, who also acts as Estonia’s Chief Rabbi.
There is a kosher restaurant adjacent to the synagogue.
Almost all Jewish education in Estonia is run through the Jewish Community of Estonia. There is a Jewish day school, the Tallinn Jewish School, that was reopened in 1990 and is considered the first national minority school in the Republic of Estonia. Tallinn Jewish School offers a complete Jewish education, including lessons in Jewish religious life and the Hebrew language. A Jewish Kindergarten, “Kindergarten Aviv,” is also run through the auspices of the Jewish Community of Estonia.
The Community Programs Center in Tallinn offers a number of activities and organizations aimed at providing Jewish learning to the Jewish youth of Estonia.
A number of Jewish youth groups are run through the Jewish Community of Estonia, including a summer camp for younger children called “Bamba.” Maccabi is very active in Estonia.
The Estonian Jewish Museum in Tallinn is a notable Jewish site in Estonia that displays the history of Estonian Jews and contains a substantial archive of Jewish documents. There is also a Jewish cemetery in Tallinn.
The former site of the Klooga concentration camp contains a monument to the victims of the Shoah. Additionally, there are memorial markers on the sites of other concentration camps and mass killing fields throughout Estonia.
Israel and Estonia maintain full diplomatic relations, with Israel having recognized the independent Republic of Estonia almost immediately in 1991. Recently, Sven Misker, the Estonian Foreign Minister, slammed the BDS movement and reaffirmed Estonia’s relationship with Israel as an ally and trading partner. Israel is represented in Estonia through its embassy in Helsinki, Finland.
Embassy of Israel in Finland
Yrjönkatu 36 A
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