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.