Leaving the Soviet Era Behind, a Shul Opens in Estonia Capital

Europe’s last remaining capital without a synagogue has ended that dubious distinction.

Amid a crowd of media, dignitaries and hundreds of local Jews, Tallinn opened its first shul since its original synagogue was destroyed in 1944 during a bombing raid against the fleeing Germans.

The May 16 opening closed a chapter of Estonian history that began with World War II and finished with the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.

“As you know, during the Soviet regime it was not possible to simply open synagogues,” Foreign Minister Urmas Paet told JTA. “And in this sense it makes a very clear difference between how things are now in an Estonian democratic republic and how things were in the Soviet regime. So it’s of course another sign of what it means to be an independent Estonian republic.”

The Tallinn synagogue, built in 1883, was not rebuilt following the country’s occupation and subsequent absorption into the USSR in the wake of World War II.

Following Estonia’s ascension into the European Union on May 1, 2004, Tallinn became the last European capital without a synagogue. For Estonia, the only European country declared officially “Juden frei,” literally “free of Jews,” by the Nazis, the occasion was tinged with the solemnity of the past and hope for the future.

Estonian Chief Rabbi Shmuel Kot, beaming from the newly inaugurated bimah, declared triumphantly, “The last 70 years were a dream. This is morning. Good morning, Estonia.”

Among the dignitaries on hand were Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves and Prime Minister Andrus Ansip, Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres and Israel’s Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger, who hung the mezuzah.

Also in attendance were representatives from many major worldwide Jewish organizations, including the executive committee of the Washington-based Jewish National Conference on Soviet Jewry. Committee members had high-level di! scussion s with the Russian and Ukrainian governments.

“For us, being here illustrates the progress that’s being made and helps to reinforce our mission,” NCSJ Executive Director Mark Levin told JTA. “Usually we’re representatives in advocacy, but today we’re representatives in celebration.”

Much of the funding for the synagogue, which cost approximately $2 million, was provided by two wealthy Chabad donors: the Rohr family of New York and Alexander Bronstein, a Russian oligarch of Estonian extraction who dedicated the shul to his mother.

Alexander Machkevich, the Kazakh oligarch who serves as chair of the Eurasian Jewish Congress, contributed an ornate silver menorah.

The day began solemnly with a memorial service amid the swaying birch trees surrounding the peaceful site of the Klooga concentration camp, where some 2,000 French and Czech Jews were murdered in advance of the Red Army’s liberation of the tiny Baltic nation.

“They have said that the power of memory is always strong,” said a somber Peres after laying a wreath on a recently constructed Holocaust memorial. “Maybe. But the power of memory is stronger than the power of understanding. We can’t understand it, but we remember.”

The 1,000 Estonian Jews who were unable to flee into Russia were murdered during the first days of the German occupation, shot in the vast wooded expanses surrounding the ancient capital city.

The Beit Bella shul, as it will be known, is the brainchild of Kot, an emissary of the Chabad Lubavitch Orthodox group that dominates Jewish life in the vast majority of former Soviet republics. It contains Estonia’s only kosher restaurant, as well as a mikvah.

Estonia has 3,500 Jews, the smallest population of any Baltic state, but Kot bristles at the suggestion that the size of his congregation belies the construction of the 180-seat synagogue, which Peres described as “not very large but full of taste.”

“The new shul has only 180 places and now I’m very sorry about that,” Kot said, “because I’m afraid in two years it won’t be enough.”

Hundreds of people gathered on the synagogue campus on a sunny day before overflowing onto the narrow street beyond its gates. When a group of local and visiting rabbis danced out the newly minted Torah scroll among the crowd, the mood was ecstatic.

Referring to a recent incident in nearby Ukraine in which the local government seized a Torah from the Jewish community, one guest remarked: “Perhaps if they could see what’s going on out there they’d understand why we were so upset.”

In a sign of just how far Estonia has moved toward the West from its former masters in Moscow, with whom the country is currently engaged in a major diplomatic row over the removal of a wartime monument to Soviet soldiers, the morning ceremony was conducted entirely in English while the afternoon event closed with the playing of the Estonian and Israeli national anthems.

Peres compared Estonia and Israel.

“We are small countries that must be great,” he said. “We have to be as great as our dangers. We have to be as developed as our opportunities.”

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