Intermarriage, aliyah slowly killing Turkus Jewish community

TURKU, Finland — Jacob Seela has bushy black eyebrows, receding curls of white and an enormous sorrow.

Although this city's 150-member Jewish community remains in the final twitches of life, he already is, in effect, sitting shiva.

Jewish life here is the victim of "a 99 percent intermarriage rate," explains the teacher-administrator. "We have to speak the truth. There is no future.

"When I teach kids about Pesach, they talk to me the next year about Christ because of the mixed marriages."

Ruth Hasan, president of the community for the past 12 years, retains a pinch of hope. Perhaps "people will hit 40 and become Jews again after being assimilated," she says.

But her flat tone reveals her words as wishful thinking.

Seela, a native of Turku, Finland's fifth largest city, stopped dreaming long ago. "The hope was that one day Russian Jews would stay. But they don't."

Says Hasan, a city council member who has close-cropped ebony hair and a taut face: "Even if they come, there is a problem: They have lost their identities and don't have any interest in being Jewish."

At its peak, in 1940-41, the Jewish community numbered 350 — roughly 10 times the population recorded in the nation's first census in 1870.

However, a major exodus to Israel since the end of World War II siphoned away a large group of the Jews.

"We have lost many people to aliyah," says Hasan, who has lived in Turku 55 years. "Half of the community have children in Israel. Most of them live in Tel Aviv."

Disregarding its inevitable disintegration, the rabbi-less Jewish community goes through the motions. An Orthodox synagogue, built in 1912, draws 15 to 20 people each Shabbat, although Seela notes that "all the people going are over 70."

One explanation for the lean attendance is that the community is scattered: People simply don't live near the synagogue anymore.

Seela also cites the scars of assimilation. "A hundred years ago, they were taught to daven. But as the generations passed, that was lost."

A community center-annex, built in 1956, has been undergoing rehabilitation for the last 10 years. It doesn't look as if it needs more fixing up — there are too few participants to cause any wear and tear.

The community, whose roots are mainly in Vilna, Poland, supports a burial society, a group to help the sick, and a Hebrew school with fewer than 10 students.

Turku's Jews also maintain a flimsy connection with those in Helsinki, located 100 miles to the west. The two populations are linked through a Council of Jewish Communities that meets only once a year.

According to Hasan, who wears a severe, man-tailored dark suit and checkered blouse, the relationship is best revealed by Helsinki's Jews, well aware of the Turku community hanging by a proverbial thread, asking "us to contribute money to get a new rabbi there."

Turku's Jews are well integrated into the 160,000 population, but every once in a while an anti-Semitic incident shakes them up. A year and a half ago, all the windows in the center were smashed by neo-Nazis. In November 1993, a 20-year-old man desecrated half the graves in the Jewish cemetery. He was convicted and sentenced to a year in jail, but his appeal is still pending.

"During the war, nothing happened — even with Nazi soldiers marching in the street," recalls Seela. "But today, the government doesn't seem to understand."

He berates local politicians as "ignorant. They don't know anything about the Jewish people. They may have some vague memory of Jewish shops from their childhood but it doesn't carry over to what's going on today."

Because it is Orthodox, the Jewish community here occasionally must skirt some other difficulties. Hasan, its first female leader, makes sure that "when we are sending official documents to Israel we are careful to not put my name on it, only male names."

And kashrut brings its own problems. "Many people keep kosher at home, but don't observe outside," says Hasan. Meat must be imported from Canada, because kosher slaughtering is frowned upon in Finland as inhumane.

Not far in the future, Seela predicts, the Jewish cemetery — hidden behind a high stone wall and iron gates in the midst of hundreds and hundreds of Lutheran plots — will stand as mute testimony that the community existed.

"I am not sad," he insists. "We have sent many children to Israel, have taught them to be Jewish, have kept the community going for several generations. There will always be Jews in other places — even if this center becomes a museum."