Across the Former Soviet Union Estonian Community Builds Shul, and Hopes Enough People Use It

Estonia’s 3,000-person Jewish community has just broken ground on its first new synagogue since Estonia achieved independence from Soviet rule 16 years ago. “This is a historic moment in which a disrupted link is being restored,” said Alexander Bronstein, a major contributor to the project in the capital city of Tallinn. “For more than 60 years there has not been a proper synagogue in Estonia.”

The construction project is seen by many as a mark of the cultural and religious rebirth of Estonian Jewry. But others wonder whether the community needs a synagogue at all.

Estonia has the smallest Jewish population of the three Baltic States. Latvia, its closest neighbor, has roughly 15,000 Jews, while Lithuania has 8,000.

Since the fall of communism, however, the Estonian Jewish community has seen an influx of funds and programs from foreign Jewish organizations.

The Jewish Agency for Israel, American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and Chabad all run programs in Tallinn, mostly working out of one tightly-packed compound that also contains the Jewish Community Center and the Tallinn Jewish School.

Jewish religious life in Tallinn belongs to Chabad, which sent Rabbi Shmuel Kot to the city five years ago at the behest of the local Jewish community.

“We had been without a rabbi for over 50 years,” said Cilja Laud, head of the country’s Jewish community. “The Jewish community is small and could not afford to support a rabbi on its own.”

Members of the community contacted Chabad, which sent and pays Kot, who runs a small synagogue on the second floor of the JCC. He is the only rabbi in Estonia.

A Progressive congregation had a fitful start in Tallinn under the guidance of the World Union for Progressive Judaism. Though the congregation fell apart as a result of leadership problems, Alex Kagan, Jerusalem’s WUPJ representative, says Estonian Jews regularly take part in WUPJ-sponsored seminars in the Baltic region.

Kot spearheaded the building of the new synagogue shortly after his arrival in Tallinn. The synagogue, which is being built next to the JCC, is slated for completion within a year. It will be of a modern, metal-and-glass design but will have a traditional layout — men and women will be seated separately.

The community greeted the project with great fanfare but many still doubt the future of Jewish religious life in Estonia. People are curious about their Jewish identity but community leaders say they may not digest Chabad-Lubavitch’s brand of Judaism.

Unlike Latvia or Lithuania, “Estonia never had a Chasidic movement,” Elhonen Saks, a prominent figure in the Jewish community and author of a number of books on Jewish topics in Estonian, told JTA.

“I’m happy that he is here — bless him,” he said of Kot. “But if he thinks that all these kids are going to be believers, I have my doubts.”

“When I go to a Shabbat service and see 30 people, 28 of whom are over 50, I wonder,” said Dmitiri Shmorgan, a recent college graduate who works as a translator in Tallinn.

Bettina Ferman, a counselor at the Jewish Youth Center, echoes these sentiments. But she does see the possibility for a more secularized though still tradition-oriented Judaism of the type being promoted by the JDC-sponsored youth center, where she is a group leader.

Ferman supports the building of the synagogue and is intrigued by the mikvah it will house.

“I’d like to try it,” she said. ” I may even go there regularly.”

Yet some local Jews believe the synagogue’s facilities — specifically the mikvah and kosher kitchen — will not be utilized and are being built only for the rabbi’s own family and visiting observant Jews.

On a recent Friday night, for example, only four youths were present at Kot’s Shabbat service. But one floor above the synagogue, at a meeting of a youth club at the Jewish Youth Center, more than a dozen kids met to act out humorous skits revolving around Jewish family life.

Despite the increased activity of foreign Jewish organizations in Estonia, Saks notes the country’s high rate of intermarriage and worries that in a few decades there will be virtually no Jews left in Estonia. He says it’s rare to find people with two Jewish parents.

That’s where the JDC hopes its regional activities will come into play.

“To put it crudely, we are widening the marriage pool,” said Andres Spokoiny, the Paris-based JDC country director for the Baltic states. “By bringing youth together for regional summer camps and retreats, we are no longer talking about a community of 3,000, but one of 30,000.”

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