Reports of Jewish settlers in what is now Estonia date from the 14th century, with Johannes Jode’s arrival in 1333, however their main settlement occurred in the 19th century when they officially were allowed entry by Czar Alexander II in 1865. Never as large a population as in the neighboring countries, the Jewish community grew and participated fully in the life of the country, including the Estonian War for Independence after World War I under an official policy of cultural autonomy.
When the Soviet Union took over the Baltic countries as a result of its non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany, about 10% of Estonia’s Jewish citizens were deported and disappeared. When the Nazis invaded, about 75% of the remaining population managed to flee to the Soviet Union. Nearly all of those who stayed 950-1,000 men, women and children were exterminated, along with thousands more deported to Estonia from other countries. Fewer than a dozen survived the war in Estonia. After the war, about 1,500 Jews returned from the Soviet Union and the population grew, but it was not until after the fall of Soviet Union, that Jewish life in Estonia began to fully recover.
The Beit Bella Synagogue opened in 2007 in the newer part of town. Modern, airy and with a sensational use of natural light, it is the religious center of today’s Jewish community, offering the full range of religious, cultural, and educational services. It also houses a small and very informative museum of the history of the Jews of Estonia. We attended the Saturday morning service and felt most welcome.