Today approximately 2,500 Jews live in Estonia, most of them in Tallinn. Outside of the capital, small communities exist in Kohtla-Jarv, Parnu, Tartu and Narva.
The first Jews arrived in what is now Estonia as early as 1333. In the 17th century, the number of Jews in the region increased, as evidenced by the fact that the authorities introduced an oath of loyalty especially for the Jews. In 1721, Estonia became part of the Russian Empire, but was situated outside the Jewish Pale of Settlement established by the Tsarina Catherine II (1762–1796). However, a process of permanent Jewish presence in Estonia began in the 19th century. In 1865, Tsar Alexander II allowed the so-called “Nicolas soldiers,” also called “Cantonists,” to live permanently outside the Pale of Settlement.
The Cantonists were Jews forcibly recruited to serve for at least 25 years in the Imperial Russian army. After they were demobilized, however, they had the right to remain where they had served. A small prayer house is known to have existed in Tallinn in the 1840s, probably used by the Cantonists. Birth and death certificates issued at that time by a local rabbi are in the possession of the community.
In 1866, a congregation was established in the university town of Tartu when the first fifty Jewish families settled there. In 1875, the first ever Jewish student organization in Estonia was established there. The majority of the Jewish population at that time consisted of tradesman and artisans, but by the end of the 19th century, several Jews had entered the academic world.
From its beginnings as an independent state (1917–1940), Estonia demonstrated tolerance toward all religious minorities. In 1926, Jews were granted cultural autonomy that was guaranteed by law. In the first elections to the Council of Cultural Autonomy, 1464 Jews, i.e., 71% of those with Estonian citizenship, participated. This cultural self-government was an almost unique phenomenon in the history of European Jewry. Jewish societies and clubs were established even in smaller cities such as Viljandi and Narva. On the eve of the Shoah, nearly 4,500 Jews lived in the country, 2,500 of them in the capital, Tallin.
During the first Soviet occupation (1940–1941), all Jewish institutions were closed down, and about 10% of the Jewish population was deported to detention centers in Siberia and elsewhere in the Soviet Union. In the summer of 2011, to mark the 70th anniversary of the deportations, the Jewish Community consecrated a monument for the Jews who were deported to Siberia and never came back.
With the German invasion at the USSR, 75% of Estonia’s Jewish community managed to escape to the Soviet interior. Immediately after the arrival of German troops, about 1,000 members of the community perished at the hands of the Germans and their local henchmen. At the Wannsee Conference on January 20, 1942, Estonia was declared Judenfrei [free of Jews], the first country in Europe so classified.
On January 27, 2012, the Jewish Community inaugurated the Memory Gallery bearing the names of the 974 Estonian Jews who were killed by the Nazis.
After the war, some of the survivors returned, and their numbers were bolstered by Russian-speaking Jews from other parts of the Soviet Union. From 1944 until 1988, the Soviet authorities did not allow the Estonian Jewish community to organize itself. With the end of Soviet rule, all restrictions on Jews were cancelled and communal life was reactivated. In March 1988, the Jewish Cultural Society was established in Tallinn.
The restructuring of the Jewish community was completed by the end of 1992 with the decision to create a single umbrella organization—the EJK (Eesti Juudi Kogukond)[the Jewish Community of Estonia (JCE)]. According to its statutes, the JCE will carry on the traditions of the pre-war Jewish Cultural Council. As an umbrella organization, it includes all Jewish societies and groups, both religious and secular, including the Social Welfare Centre, the Maccabi sport clubs, the Association of Jewish Youth and Students, and the Jewish Veterans Union. The Jewish Community Center of Estonia, opened in 1999, has a library and offers language courses in English, Hebrew, Yiddish, French, Estonian and Italian, and classes in Jewish song and dance. It also hosts art exhibitions.
Nowadays, the Jewish Community of Estonia is a very active and rapidly growing organization. More than 1,500 people are members of the JCE. It provides programming for Jews of all ages. It also offers a wide variety of Jewish events including conferences, Jewish holiday observances, cultural events and educational seminars. The highlight of the year is the Estonian Jewish forum, “Yahad,” which brings together more than 500 participants.
The Jewish Community of Estonia shares many regional programs with the neighboring Jewish Communities of Latvia and Lithuania.
There is only one functioning synagogue in Estonia.Alsoknown as Beit Bella,the ultra-modern glass and concrete building was consecrated in 2007 and can seat 180 worshippers with additional seating for up to 230 people for concerts and other public events. The synagogue is presided over by a resident Chabad rabbi.
In 1989, a Sunday school opened in Tallinn followed in 1990 by a Jewish day school for students from grades 1 to 12.The day school is housed in the pre-war Jewish school building that was restituted to the Jewish community after Estonia regained its independence in 1990 and today has close to 350 pupils.
In 2013, the Jewish Community of Estonia opened the "Aviv" kindergarten, in which 30 children, aged 1.5–7, are currently enrolled, and are divided into three age groups. The kindergarten operates in two languages—Russian & Estonian. In addition to receiving basic pre-school education, the children also learn about Jewish traditions, as well as Israeli dance, art, Jewish songs, family holiday celebrations, etc.
On December 17, 2008, the Jewish Community inaugurated the Estonian Jewish Museum. Along with the Memory Gallery, it is located on the 3rd floor of the Jewish Community Center .
In Klooga, to the southeast of Tallinn, the site of an infamous concentration camp, a monument to the victims of the Shoah was erected in 1994at the initiative of the Jewish Cultural Society and with the support of the Estonian government.Twenty memorial markers have been placed by the community on the sites of other concentration camps and mass killing fields throughout the country.
There is a kosher restaurant adjacent to the synagogue Beit Bella.
For up to date information on Kosher restaurants and locations please see the Shamash Kosher Database