Community in Finland - World Jewish Congress
Finland

The Jewish community in Finland is represented by the Suomen Juutalaisten Seurakuntien Keskusneuvosto (Central Council of Jewish Communities of Finland), the Finnish affiliate of the World Jewish Congress.

WJC Affiliate
Suomen Juutalaisten Seurakuntien Keskusneuvosto (Central Council of Jewish Communities of Finland)

Telephone: +358 9 586 0310
Fax:
+358 9 586 03130
Email:
srk@jchelsinki.fi
Website:
http://www.jchelsinki.fi/en

Central Council of Jewish Communities of Finland President & WJC Vice President: Yaron Nadbornik
History

The history of Jews in Finland is a relatively recent development, as Jews were initially prohibited from settling in Finland, part of the Swedish Kingdom, until 1809, under Swedish law. When Finland became a grand dukedom of the Russian Empire, the prohibition of Jewish settlement (as well as the Swedish constitution and legal system) prevailed, and there continued to be no Jews in the country.

Jewish history in Finland began in the first half of the 19th century, when Jewish soldiers (known as "Cantonists") serving in the Russian army in Finland were granted permission by Russian military authorities to stay in Finland after completing their military service. Jewish residence in the country was thus governed by a decree from 1858, which allowed Russian soldiers who had completed their service, regardless of religion, to temporarily reside in Finland. Professions permitted to these soldiers were defined in a decree from 1869 and applied also to soldiers of Jewish origin. In 1889, an administrative decree was issued explicitly concerning the residence of Jews in Finland. According to this decree, a number of named Jews were allowed to stay in the country only temporarily and to reside in certain specified cities, receiving residence permits valid for a maximum of six months. The professions open to Jews remained the same as in the 1869 decree. In practice, this meant that Jews continued to earn their living primarily by selling second-hand clothes. Jews were prohibited from participating in markets or conducting trade outside the city in which they lived. Any minor breach of these restrictions led to expulsion from Finland. Children were allowed to stay in Finland only as long as they lived with their parents or remained unmarried. Jews who enlisted in the Russian army while in Finland were not allowed to return to Finland after completing their service.

Between the two World Wars, the Jewish population increased to about 2,000, mainly due to immigration from Soviet Russia following the revolution. Many young Jews studied at the university, and others held professions as doctors, lawyers, and engineers. Many worked in industry and forestry, but the majority continued to work in the textile and clothing sectors. With a few exceptions, Jews did not participate in party politics or any political movements.

The struggle for equal rights for Jews was taken up in the Finnish Diet in 1872. A public debate on Jewish emancipation that started at that time continued through the 1870s and 1880s. However, there was no improvement in the status of Jews in Finland during this period. By the late 1880s, there were about a thousand Jewish inhabitants in Finland. It was not until 1917, when Finland gained independence, and Jews were granted civil rights. On December 22, 1917, the Parliament approved a law concerning “adherents of the Mosaic faith,” which was promulgated on January 12, 1918. According to this law, Jews could, for the first time, become citizens of Finland, and Jews who were not Finnish citizens would henceforth be treated as foreigners in general.

After the end of World War II, almost all Finnish Jews were integrated into Finnish society, and there was a general acceptance of the Jewish community. The War of Independence for the State of Israel in 1948 saw Finnish Jewish volunteers participate at a rate proportionally greater than any other Diaspora community. Emigration, mainly to Israel, contributed to a decline in the Finnish Jewish community that continued throughout the latter half of the 20th century. 

Jewish congregations in Helsinki and Turku have Ashkenazi Orthodox synagogues that were built in 1906 and 1912, respectively. The Jewish congregation in Tampere closed its doors in 1981. The congregations belong to the Central Council of Jewish Communities in Finland, a consultative body that handles general matters concerning Jews in Finland. This body is, in turn, a member of the European Council of Jewish Communities and the World Jewish Congress. It also maintains contacts with other congregations in the Nordic countries.

Today, the Finnish Jewish community is well integrated into general Finnish society and can freely and openly practice their religion with relatively little issue. 

The years of the Holocaust

During World War II, Finnish Jews continued to enjoy full civil rights without any doubt as to their status as citizens. They fought beside their non-Jewish fellow countrymen in the Winter War, the invasion of Finland by the Soviets in 1939, and later, in a strange twist of history, alongside German soldiers in the Continuation War of 1941 to 1944 as co-belligerents. Approximately 500 Jewish refugees arrived in Finland during World War II, and approximately 350 moved to other countries. 

The Jews in Finland were spared the horrors of the Holocaust due to the unwavering position that the Finnish government took against pressure from the Nazis. It is said that when pressed by Nazi SS commander Heinrich Himmler, Finland's Prime Minister Johan Wilhelm Rangell stated, “We have no Jewish question here.” In November 1942, eight Jewish foreign refugees were deported to Nazi Germany after the head of the Finnish police agreed to hand them over. Just one of them survived. When the Finnish media reported the news, a national scandal broke out, the ministers resigned in protest, and no more Jewish refugees were deported from Finland.

Recently, Finland has officially apologized for this dark part of history.

Community Facts

1. Jews were only allowed to start applying for full citizenship rights in 1918.

2. The Finnish state supports intercultural and interfaith work involving Jewish communities and institutions through the National Forum for Cooperation of Religions in Finland (CORE Forum). It brings together six religions: Christianity, Islam, Judaism, the Latter-day Saints, Buddhism and Hinduism.

3. Notable Finnish Jews incude Ben Zyskowicz, the first Finnish Jew elected to Parliament, who has served since 1979, and Max Jakobson, who served as the Finnish Ambassador to the UN from 1965 to 1971.

4. Many Finnish-Jewish volunteers participated in Israel's War of Independence, and Finland also donated weapons to Israel. These Finnish volunteers represented the highest per capita participation rate of any Jewish community outside Israel.

5. Based on data from 2023, Finland has 1,300 Jewish residents, ranking it as the third-largest Jewish population in Scandinavia, behind Denmark and Sweden.

Demography

The Finnish Jewish community estimates that there are around 1,300 Jews in the country, out of a total population of 5,518,371, as of 2023. There are two Jewish communities in Finland: one in Helsinki with roughly 950 members and another in Turku with less than a hundred members. Both are referred to as the Finnish Jewish Community (FJC).

Jews in Finland are classified as a national minority falling within the scope of application of the Council of Europe’s Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities and are even classified unofficially as a “traditional” minority (perinteinen vähemmistö), an ethnic or linguistic minority that has been in Finland for at least several decades. The rights of minorities are protected by the second chapter of Finland’s constitution.

Community Life

The Central Council of Jewish Communities of Finland (Suomen Juutalaisten Seurakuntien Keskusneuvosto) is the leading communal body and is made up of the communities of Helsinki and Turku. It works as a consultative body for Finnish Jewry and a preserver of Jewish heritage in Finland. The Central Council of Jewish Communities of Finland also works in close connection with other Nordic Jewish communities, as well as Estonia.

Jewish life in Finland is largely centered in Helsinki, where there are many communal activities, including a library, choir, elderly home, and institutions such as the Women's International Zionist Organization (WIZO), the Jewish National Fund, Keren Hayesod, and a Maccabi sports club.

The Finnish Jewish Community (FJC) maintains that antisemitism, especially the kind that is expressed through anti-Zionism, is a challenge to the Jewish community of Finland. Due to that, the Jewish community of Helsinki cooperates with the Helsinki District Police, who have arranged daily protection for the community center, as the Jewish primary school and kindergarten operate in the same building. Additionally, religious and faith communities can apply for funding from the Ministry of Education and Culture, with €824,000 budgeted for 2022, from which the Jewish community of Helsinki annually receives €150,000 to improve and maintain its security. However, the Jewish Community of Turku has not received aid for security expenses and improvements.

In 2022, the Finnish Ministry of the Interior, the police, and the Jewish community prepared a joint training session on antisemitism aimed at the police, strengthening ongoing Jewish security efforts. The training was carried out in cooperation with the Anti-Defamation League and will use the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism.

Religious and Cultural life

The Jewish communities in Helsinki and Turku both follow Ashkenazi-Orthodox rituals, and each city has a synagogue. There is also a Chabad center in Helsinki. In 2013, Rabbi Simon Livson was appointed chief rabbi and serves the Helsinki Jewish community. There is also a beautiful mikveh (Jewish ritual purity bathhouse) in Helsinki that was rebuilt in 2014. The community employs two Finnish-speaking rabbis in total.

To allow members to fully practice their religion, the congregation maintains and organizes services on weekdays, Sabbaths, and Jewish holidays; ensures an adequate supply of Torah scrolls and other sacred texts and prayer books; maintains a register of mohelim (certified circumcisers for Brit Milah ceremonies), approved by the congregation, that offer circumcision services; organizes bar and bat mitzvah training for the congregation’s youth; maintains a register of authorized marriage officiators; and manages cemeteries and burials. To fulfill these tasks and services, the congregation acquires and maintains synagogues, prayer rooms, cemeteries, chapels, and other necessary facilities.

The Sunday school is intended for all children and youth who do not attend the Jewish school but need education in Jewish religion. The Sunday school is aimed at children who are either 10 or 11 years old, and the entire family is invited to participate in some of the activities and lessons. If a child does not attend the Jewish school, the congregation requires that the child participate in Sunday school before starting Bnei Mitzvah instruction to celebrate their Bat/Bar Mitzvah ceremony at the Helsinki synagogue.

Jewish Education

Gan Jeladim is the only Jewish daycare in Finland, operating within the premises of the Helsinki Jewish Congregation. The daycare has four groups for children aged three to seven, including a preschool class. The daycare accommodates 42 children and is very popular. The children naturally learn about Jewish religion, customs, traditions, and the Hebrew language through daily activities. Every day, the children are served breakfast, lunch, and snacks that are prepared in a kosher kitchen. The congregation's yard features a newly equipped playground that the children use daily.

Finland's first Jewish school began its operations in 1893. This Jewish school operated for only seven years and was forced to close in 1900 due to financial difficulties. Although Finnish Jews were granted civil rights in 1918, making all educational institutions accessible to them, a general Jewish school was seen as a necessity. On the initiative of active parents, the Jewish Community School in Helsinki was founded, starting its operations on November 15, 1918. In 1936, the school's language of instruction changed to Finnish, and the school's name was changed to the Helsinki Jewish Community School (Helsingin juutalainen yhteiskoulu). In 1977, the name was changed to the Jewish School (Juutalainen koulu) following Finland's comprehensive school reform. Today, it has since reverted to its original name, Helsingin Juutalainen Yhteiskoulu, and is a private school maintained by the Helsinki Jewish Congregation that offers basic education. The school is led by a board elected by the congregation's council for a three-year term. Sixty percent of the school's costs are covered by public funding, with the remaining part funded by the Jewish congregation. Education is free of charge, except for possible travel expenses.

In addition to basic education, the school has a special mission to teach Jewish religion, tradition, and Hebrew. The lower grades' religious education also includes the history of the Bible; Hebrew is taught starting in the first grade, while Jewish history is included in history lessons starting in grade six. In 2005, the school introduced the "Tal Am" program into its curriculum; Hebrew is taught in two different groups based on whether Hebrew is a home language or a foreign language. The program has shown good results in the first through fourth grades.

In the mid-1970s, the school had 50 students. In the 2000s, the number of students increased to 113, or about 90 percent of the congregation's school-age children. The increase in the number of students has been influenced by the immigration of Russian and Israeli Jews to Finland, especially to the Helsinki metropolitan area. In addition to Finnish and Swedish, students also speak several other languages at home. Students come to the school from the Helsinki metropolitan area and other parts of Uusimaa, though most are from Helsinki.

The national curricula for primary and secondary as well as upper secondary education were amended in 2010, with an emphasis on strengthening knowledge of fundamental rights as well as discussing the Holocaust from historical as well as ethical perspectives. The National Agency for Education has encouraged schools and educational institutions to make use of the teaching material and tools it has produced in recent years on the topic of the Holocaust. Many upper secondary schools organize courses on the history of the Holocaust, including excursions to Auschwitz or other related museums or memorial sites. Finnish teachers were also trained in teaching the Holocaust at seminars organized by Yad Vashem in Jerusalem in 2008, 2010, 2012, and 2018. According to the FJC, the Holocaust is taught in Finnish schools, but students are not taught about Jewish life and antisemitism.

For adults, Åbo University offers courses in Judaic studies. Chug Ivri, originally founded in the 1920s, is a club for adults who want to study Hebrew. Today, lessons are held at the congregation on Tuesday evenings. Instruction is available at three levels (beginner, intermediate, and advanced). Chug Ivri has historically organized a two-week trip to a kibbutz in the Negev Desert in Israel for several summers. During the trip, participants can familiarize themselves with everyday life in Israel in Hebrew. 

Youth

There is an active chapter of the B'nei Akiva youth movement in Finland and many young Finnish Jews are sent to visit Israel as teenagers through the auspices of the community to foster a sense of Jewish identity and connection to Israel.

Jewish Media

Hakehila, the publication of the Helsinki Jewish Congregation is published four times a year. The magazine features numerous articles on Jewish culture, religion, history, and Jewish life both in Finland and worldwide.

The library was founded in 1922 through a collection of congregation members to gather books in Yiddish. A total of 80 books were collected. However, Yiddish was not a common literary language among members. so soon, the majority of the library’s books were in other languages. The collection grew year by year. During World War II, the library of the Jewish congregation in Vyborg had to be evacuated and was partially moved to the Helsinki Jewish Congregation’s library. Later, about 500 books were donated to the newly established State of Israel, and about 300 books had to be destroyed due to water damage. Today, the library has about 3,500 books in nine different languages.

Jewish literature is well-represented in Finnish public libraries. In the library, Jewish literature is collected as a whole section, encompassing a large part of Jewish and Hebrew literature in Finland, as well as an extensive DVD collection. A rapidly growing part of the library's content is modern Hebrew literature. In Hebrew, the library is called "Sifria," and it refers to the active group that meets every Tuesday in the library to socialize in Hebrew around a theme or just to enjoy. The Jewish Congregation's library is open during the school year on Tuesdays from 16:00 to 20:00. The library is closed on Jewish and Finnish holidays.

Kosher Food

Kosher groceries, meat, catering services, and more are offered throughout Finland. A list of kosher products and locations here.

Information for visitors

The Fenno Judaica exhibition presents over a hundred years of Jewish history and culture in Finland with materials from the Finnish-Jewish archive. The exhibition's oldest document dates back to 1850.

The leading sites of Jewish interest include the Stolperstein memorials for deported Jewish refugees and a Jewish cemetery where a section is devoted to the Jews who fell in the Finnish Army in the Russo-Finnish and Continuation Wars.

There are two Jewish cemeteries in Helsinki. The older one was opened next to the Finnish Guard's cemetery in the 1840s. The new cemetery was opened further south in Sandudd, Helsinki, in 1895. The cemetery chapel was built in 1951 and designed by K. R. Lindgren. The Helsinki Jewish Congregation's burial society, Chevra Kadisha, handles all arrangements related to burials at the cemetery. The ceremony follows the customs and practices of Orthodox Judaism.

The archives of Finnish Jews, located in the National Archives, can be used by both domestic and foreign researchers. However, a research permit must be obtained from the office of the Helsinki Jewish Congregation. 

Relations with Israel

Israel and Finland maintain full diplomatic ties, with formal relations between the two countries established in 1948.

Embassy of Israel in Finland
Yrjönkatu 36 A
00100 Helsinki

Telephone: +358-(0)9-6812020
Fax: +358-(0)9-1356959
Email: info@helsinki.mfa.gov.il

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