This Day in Jewish History / An Estonian Jewish Revival Begins

After nearly disappearing in the Holocaust, the Estonian Jewish community took a big step in rebuilding itself when, on this day in 2005, the cornerstone was laid for its first synagogue since World War II.

On this day in 2005, the Jewish community of Estonia laid the cornerstone for its first synagogue since the end of World War II, in Tallinn, the capital. The occasion, which was witnessed by then-Israeli President Moshe Katsav, symbolized the rebirth of a community that had appeared to be extinct for more than half a century.

Prior to the war, approximately 4,400 Jews lived in Estonia.  The origins of the organized community went back only about 100 years, though the Jewish presence in this Baltic land dates to the 14thcentury.  Most of Estonia’s Jews fled either during the brief period of Soviet occupation (1939-40) or the following year, as the Germans invaded so that only 1,000-1,500 Jews remained for the Nazis to murder.  Together with an additional 20,000 Jews deported to Estonia from other parts of Europe, particularly Lithuania, they were transported to death camps in the country. Only some 100 Jews survived the Holocaust in Estonia. The country’s two synagogues, in Tallinn and Tartu, both dating to the 19thcentury, were destroyed.

A number of Jews returned to Estonia after World War II, but because it was now a Soviet satellite state, they were unable to revive the community’s religious and cultural life. Beginning just prior to the fall of the USSR and accelerating with Estonia’s renewed independence in 1991, Jewish organizations – both religious and secular – began to establish themselves in a number of towns. In September 2005, when Katsav made his state visit, he laid a wreath at a memorial at the site of the Klooga concentration camp, west of Tallinn. Two years later, in May 2007, the synagogue whose groundbreaking Katsav attended opened. Beit Bella, as it is called, was established by Chabad and funded in part by the Rohr family of New York; it seats 180 worshipers. In that year, Estonia’s Jewish community numbered approximately 1,900.