Join us on this visual trip to Jewish Estonia

by Michael Sax

Jews of Estonia – how did they get there? Did any Jews survive? The answers are here.

History of Jews in Estonia

Jews first arrived in Estonia in 1333. They survived there, and ‘cantonists’ established a permanent community in the 19th century. The cantonists were Jewish people who were forcibly constricted into the army at just 12 years old. They were then placed in cantonist schools for a military education until they turned eighteen. Afterwards, they were forced to serve 25 years in the Imperial Russian army. There was heavy pressure to convert and there was no kosher food available.  Many Jewish children, due to cantonist pressures, converted.

Modern Jewish community

Yet surprisingly, a Jewish community survived. They built synagogues and schools. Jewish cultural life became more varied towards the end of the 19th century. At that point, some Jews entered the University of Tartu which later improved both Jewish culture and education.

Today, the Jewish community focuses on its youth and children. Estonia tolerates religious minorities. Furthermore, in 1926, Estonia declared its Jewish people to be a ‘cultural autonomy’.  Its constitution guarantees freedom of religion and separation of church and state. Most of all, it also guarantees individual rights to privacy of belief and religion.

Jewish Identity

Consequently, Jewish youth learn about their heritage through different ways. Some of those include summer camps. Yet other times they may go on Jewish trips. These greatly contribute to their own sense of Jewish identity. Rather, their Jewish education enables them to see the world differently. Today, about 2,500 Jews live in Estonia. They mostly live in Tallinn (the capital city). It is especially relevant that the Jews reached a milestone in 2007 – they built a new synagogue. This was very emotional and significant, since it was the first new synagogue built since World War Two. A true sign of life and proof that the Jewish people are alive today.

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