Estonia’s Jews inaugurate first synagogue since WWII

TALLINN, Estonia: Estonia’s Jewish community, which was nearly annihilated by the Nazis, on Wednesday inaugurated the Baltic country’s first and only synagogue since World War II, when the previous house of worship was destroyed in air raids.

The chief rabbis of Israel and Estonia, Israeli Vice Premier Shimon Peres and Estonian Prime Minister Andrus Ansip were among the 500 people attending the opening ceremony in Tallinn.

Ansip said he was pleased that the country of 1.3 million, which joined the European Union in 2004, once again had a place of worship for Jews.

“I feel sorry that Estonia has been the only nation in the EU without a synagogue,” said Ansip, who made a personal donation to the project.

Peres and Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves cut the red ribbon in front of the arched glass facade of the bright, airy 180-seat synagogue after the Torah scrolls were brought inside.

“You can burn down a building, but you cannot burn down a prayer. And we are a praying people,” Peres said.

Tallinn’s previous synagogue, built in 1883, was destroyed in 1944 in air raids as Nazi troops fled the Red Army’s advance. Tartu, a university town southeast of the capital, also had a synagogue, but it too was destroyed during the war.

Some 5,000 Jews lived in Estonia prior to World War II, enjoying cultural autonomy declared by the government in 1926.

The Soviet occupation of Estonia in 1940 led to the abrupt end of the Jewish cultural autonomy, and hundreds of Jews were deported, as were thousands of other Estonians.

When the Nazis invaded in 1941, a majority in the Jewish community managed to escape to the Soviet Union, but the roughly 1,000 Jews who remained behind were sent to concentration camps in Estonia.

They were later killed along with thousands of other Jews deported to Estonia from other European countries. Experts believe fewer than a dozen Jews survived the Holocaust in Estonia.

Today, most of Estonia’s Jews live in Tallinn.

Speaking of the wartime occupations of Estonia, Ilves said it was a difficult time for both Estonians and Jews.

“Estonia’s Jewish community has always done good things for the Estonian nation,” he said.

Members of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, attended the ceremony along with Israel’s chief Rabbi Yona Metzger as well as diplomats and representatives of Jewish communities in Russia, Finland and Latvia. Members of Estonia’s 3,000-strong Jewish community also took part, including chief Rabbi Shmuel Kot.

On Tuesday, Kot said that for a long time it was not possible to practice Jewish life in Estonia.

“There was no rabbi, no kosher food … no possibility to learn about Judaism,” said Kot, of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, an organization of Hasidic Jews based in New York. “People will now have the possibility to feel as a Jew.”

The Chabad-Lubavitch movement enjoys strong support in the Baltics, Russia and other former republics of the Soviet Union. In Russia, the Jewish community has been split by its rivalry with the traditional Orthodox Jewish leadership.

President Vladimir Putin waded into the dispute in 2001, replacing Russia’s longtime chief rabbi on a government advisory council with the leading Chabad-Lubavitch rabbi.

The group is also active in Berlin where it runs a school and a nursery school, and is building a large new community center that will include a synagogue, library and mikva ritual bath.

In 2005, the group opened a synagogue in the Polish capital, Warsaw, and later another one in Krakow — both led by Israeli rabbis.

Hungary’s first Chabad-Lubavitch community was established in 1989, said Rabbi Shlomo Koves, adding that there are groups also in Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Croatia and Bulgaria.

The US$2 million (1.5 million pounds) price tag for the Tallinn synagogue was shouldered by the U.S.-based Rohr Family Foundation and Estonian donators.

Kot said Jewish rules on synagogue design, including construction materials and decoration, made the new synagogue project demanding. The Estonian architects responsible for the design made a field trip to Israel to get familiarized with the rigid requirements, he said.

In addition to religious services, the synagogue will prepare and distribute kosher foods in a restaurant and present the history of Jews in Estonia.

Ivar Leimus from the Estonian History Museum welcomed the new synagogue, hoping it would lead a re-emergence of Jewish life. “We are very happy that one part of the population has again received part of its identity back,” Leimus said.

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Associated Press reporters Gary Peach in Riga, Pablo Gorondi in Budapest, Steve Gutterman in Moscow, Monika Scislowska in Warsaw and Melissa Eddy in Berlin contributed to this report.

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