Migrs breathe life into Finlands Jewish community

helsinki, finland | Before Tamara Tuuminen left her native Moscow in 1978 with her husband, an ethnic Finn, she distanced herself from her Jewish roots.

In the Soviet Union in the 1970s, “it was dangerous to be involved” in Jewish life, said Tuuminen, 51, a specialist in immunology and clinical microbiology who lives in Helsinki. “You could lose your right to study” at university.

Only in Finland was she able to reconnect with her background, as have hundreds of recent Russian-born Jewish immigrants.

Those immigrants have saved the community from extinction, say leaders of the small native Finnish Jewish community.

At the dawn of the 1990s, decades of immigration to Israel and intermarriage had decimated Finland’s Jewish population. The country’s third-largest Jewish community, in the city of Tampere, was forced to cease operations in 1981, and the country appeared to have lost the fight to maintain its dwindling Jewish population.

“The future wasn’t looking very good because the number of community members had been declining all the time,” recalls Dan Kantor, executive director of the Jewish Community of Helsinki.

The JCH runs the city’s 100-year-old synagogue, which houses Finland’s only Jewish day school, and operates the only kosher deli in Finland.

When the Soviet Union collapsed and Jewish emigration began in earnest in the early 1990s, most Jews who left went to Israel, the United States or Germany. But a few hundred families went to Finland, the USSR’s closest capitalist neighbor.

These Jews helped speed the revival of what was once a small but strong diaspora community with close historical ties to Russia.

“Today we have about 1,200 members. In the 1980s we had about 800 members,” says Kantor. About 75 percent of the schoolchildren have one immigrant parent, he said. “There, in very clear numbers, is what has happened.”

Taking in so many immigrants has been challenging for all involved. Most Soviet Jews had lost any connection with their religious roots.

“They had very hard times in Russia,” said Binyamin Wolff, a Chabad rabbi from New Jersey serving in Helsinki, “and now we have to give them the message that times are different.”

Chabad and the JCH are at the forefront of outreach to the immigrant Jews. Chabad sponsors monthly gatherings of Russians, and the JCH has a comprehensive program at its day school for kindergarten through 12th grade.

Students can enroll in the school as long as one parent is Jewish. The school, which receives 80 percent of its funding from the state and the rest from private donors, goes to great lengths to ensure that students don’t lose touch with their native background. The school has an intensive language program for children who enter with no knowledge of Finnish, but lessons also are given in Russian to preserve the students’ mother tongue.

In addition to the mandated state curriculum, the children learn Jewish history and Hebrew.

“For the children it’s a very efficient way to strengthen their Jewish identity and also to integrate into Finnish society,” says Kantor. “And of course, through the children, the parents are very efficiently integrated into the community and, also through the community, into society.”

But how to integrate adults with virtually no knowledge of their cultural history without boring them or scaring them away?

That’s a struggle for Wolff.

“I like them to feel that being Jewish isn’t something that’s religious or just in synagogue,” he says. “I like to show them that being Jewish is something that’s a part of our life and it’s something enjoyable. We eat like a Jew, we do business like a Jew and we hang out with friends like a Jew, and I like to give them those opportunities.”

In some cases, time is the best aid. Tuuminen, whose two grown sons didn’t receive a Jewish education while attending state schools in Helsinki, would do things differently if she could.

“When you become older,” she says, “you become more interested in your history, in where you came from.”