A Jewish presence in Estonia was first recorded in 1333, but their numbers remained small until the 18th century. A permanent community began to develop in the 19th century when the Russian army first brought Jewish youths to the Tallinn garrisons, who were allowed to remain in Estonia after their military service ended. Starting in 1865 several categories of Jews—certified craftsmen, merchants of the first guild, and people with higher education— were allowed to reside on Estonia’s territory. As the community grew the first congregations were formed and places of worship, graveyards, aid funds, and cultural societies were built up. A grand synagogue was built in Tallinn in 1886 and another was built in Tartu in 1903 (both were destroyed in 1944). In 1913 a total of 4 995 Jews lived within Estonia’s borders. At that time the centre of the Jewish community was Tartu, as many Jewish students from various parts of the Russian empire were studying at the university there. Organisations with both Zionist and socialist leanings also formed there.
The creation of the Republic of Estonia in 1918 marked the beginning of a new era for the Jews. Approximately 200 Jews fought in combat for the creation of the Republic of Estonia. Previously the local Jews had been just a small fragment of the 5 million strong Jewish population of the Russian empire, but now they became the Estonian Jewish community and were citizens with equal rights. In 1926 the Estonian government became the first in the world to grant cultural autonomy to Jews (this act was added to the Golden Book of Jerusalem in 1927). The number of Jewish organisations increased rapidly: a Jewish upper secondary school was founded in Tallinn, as were a secondary school in Tartu and an elementary school in Valga. A Jewish kindergarten as well as sports clubs, drama groups, libraries, and other clubs were formed. In 1939 there were a total of 32 different Jewish organisations active in Estonia.
The Soviet occupation that began in 1940 put an end to cultural autonomy for Jews. On 14 June 1941 nearly 10% of Estonia’s Jewish population was deported to Siberia by the Soviet authorities. Many Jews had already fled to Russia, fearing invasion by the Germans. During the course of the German occupation (1941-1944) nearly all the Jews remaining in Estonia perished.
During the Soviet occupation that followed the Second World War, preserving the Jewish identity became extremely complicated. Organized and cultural activities came to complete halt. However, many Jews from other parts of the Soviet Union moved to Estonia, seeking refuge from the anti-semitism prevalent in their home areas. In Estonia the situation was somewhat more open and opportunities for education were better.
When Estonia regained its independence the situation changed. In 1988 Trivimi Velliste, the chairman of the Estonian Heritage Society, initiated the creation of the Jewish Cultural Society.
In 1992 the Jewish Cultural Society was re-organised, and as a result of this process the Estonian Jewish Community was established. In 1990 the Jewish School in Tallinn was re-opened and in 2000 so was the synagogue, which initially functioned in the same building as the school. Thanks to generous donations, in May 2007 a new synagogue building was opened in Tallinn.
An Estonian Jewish Museum opened in Tallinn in December 2008. The museum documents the life of Estonian Jews from the 19th century to the present and gives an overview of the important part Jews have played in Estonia’s cultural life, business and science.
There are currently about 2 000 Jews living in Estonia.
You can read more about Jews in Estonia here:
No issues regarding property exist between the Jewish community and Estonia. During his visit to Israel in July 1998, Foreign Minister Toomas Hendrik Ilves met with deputy chairman of the World Jewish Restitution Organisation Naphtali Lavie, who gave the Republic of Estonia the following official assessment by the organisation: Estonia is the only country in Eastern Europe to which the WJRO makes no demands.