New Estonian shul: Its almost built, but will they come

tallinn, estonia | Estonia’s 3,000-person Jewish community has just broken ground on its first new synagogue since Estonia achieved independence from Soviet rule 16 years ago.

The construction project is seen by many as a mark of the cultural and religious rebirth of Estonian Jewry. But others wonder whether the community needs a synagogue at all. Estonia has the smallest Jewish population of the three Baltic States. Latvia, its closest neighbor, has roughly 15,000 Jews, while Lithuania has 8,000.

Since the fall of communism, however, the Estonian Jewish community has seen an influx of funds and programs from foreign Jewish organizations.

The Jewish Agency for Israel, American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and Chabad all run programs in Tallinn, mostly working out of one tightly-packed compound that also contains the Jewish Community Center and the Tallinn Jewish School.

Jewish religious life in Tallinn belongs to Chabad, which sent Rabbi Shmuel Kot to the city five years ago at the behest of the local Jewish community.

Members of the community contacted Chabad, which sent and pays Kot, who runs a small synagogue on the second floor of the JCC. He is the only rabbi in Estonia.

A Progressive congregation had a fitful start in Tallinn under the guidance of the World Union for Progressive Judaism. Though the congregation fell apart as a result of leadership problems, Alex Kagan, Jerusalem’s WUPJ representative, says Estonian Jews regularly take part in WUPJ-sponsored seminars in the Baltic region.

Kot spearheaded the building of the new synagogue shortly after his arrival in Tallinn.

The community greeted the project with great fanfare but many still doubt the future of Jewish religious life in Estonia. People are curious about their Jewish identity but community leaders say they may not digest Chabad-Lubavitch’s brand of Judaism.

Unlike Latvia or Lithuania, “Estonia never had a Chasidic movement,” said Elhonen Saks, a prominent figure in the Jewish community and author of a number of books on Jewish topics in Estonian.

“I’m happy that he is here — bless him,” she said of Kot. “But if he thinks that all these kids are going to be believers, I have my doubts.”