Jews of Tallin
by Alex Archer
As we reached Tallin, Estonia, once again the sun shone brightly and there was not a cloud to be seen in the sky. We were going to have a wonderful day and we did.
Tallinn is a city steeped in history. The city was built between the 13th and 16th centuries and has remained almost unchanged. This is thanks to some clever Middle Ages town planners who banned the use of combustible building materials. Imagine the scenes portrayed in the old Eastern European children's stories and that's exactly what the old town looks like today.
Then imagine if Medieval Englishmen had the foresight to have enacted similarly. There would have been no Great Fire of London. We would still have narrow cobbled streets and no wide roads; low, two or three storey tiny buildings and no sky scrapers. In fact the whole city as we know London today would have to be rebuilt elsewhere to accommodate Buckingham Palace, the city institutions and department stores!
I hadn't made prior arrangements to visit the shul and I have taken the following very abbreviated history from the much greater detail outlined on the website of The Jewish Community in Estonia.
The permanent settlement of Jews in Estonia was relatively recent. They were not granted the right of settlement until the 19th century and the largest synagogues were not built until the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. At that time, there were 5,000 Jews recorded as living in Estonia. Sadly the shuls were destroyed in World War II and during the Soviet bombing raids of March 1944.
The Estonians were, and still are, very tolerant towards the Jews. In fact in 1925, the Act of Cultural Autonomy for Ethnic Minorities was passed. With the aid of state provided financial support, the Jewish cultural societies flourished. There were 4,300 Jews in Estonia with 3 Jewish schools and 32 Jewish organisations. However, all this came to an end in 1940 when Estonia was occupied by the Soviets and all Jewish activities were banned.
During World War II, most Estonian Jews fled to the Soviet Union and those who remained, approximately 1,000, were murdered by the Nazis. Remarkably Estonia was the only German occupied country where the Nazis were unable to provoke Jewish pogroms and there is no recorded case of Estonians killing a Jew on their own.
During the second Soviet occupation of 1944 to 1991 many Jews came to Estonia to escape the anti-Semitism which existed in many parts of the USSR, and by 1960 there were 5,500 Jews, 80% of them living in Tallinn. But the Communist party prevented the creation of Jewish organisations, associations and clubs.
In March 1988, following the end of the Soviet era, the Jewish Cultural Society was established. Following the restoration of Estonia's independence in 1991 the Cultural Society was reorganised and the Jewish Community was established in 1992.
We took the 15 minute walk from the Old City to the Jewish area. The first thing we noticed was the openness of the area. There were no locked gates and anyone could walk up to the shul. Further to avoid even the tiniest element of doubt, the word synagogue (in Estonian) was written in large letters above the door (photo 1).
The Jewish community and the museum were clearly labelled (photo 2) as was the Jewish school next door.
Unfortunately the museum was closed and there was no one to show us around. However a security man opened up the shul for us. We walked through the security arch setting off the bleeps with our cameras and phones. The security man did not even flinch! He did not speak English, so we had to work things out for ourselves. However we had been in many shuls and this would not be an onerous task! Even being only 20 years old, the shul looked like any other we had visited in a variety countries, only this one was modern (photo 3) .
The shul was surprisingly small inside - only about 100 seats downstairs and probably the Ladies Gallery had seats for less (photo 4). No doubt they are able to open up the connecting buildings for Yom Tov!
With all this openness I was surprised that there were no mezuzahs to be seen from the outside - they were all inside the doors. However there was no one to ask.
If you are fortunate to spend some time in Tallinn, make sure you make the most of it. It really is quite a special city to see - it is not often that history has been so well preserved. Then contrast this with a modern day design and make arrangements to visit the shul - their website is www.ejc.ee