Shalom Life | February 22, 2014

Shalom, Estonia: A Jewish Culture Guide

Despite numerous hardships in the past, the thriving Estonian Jewish community is now enjoying both a cultural revival.

By: Sarah Bauder

Published: December 10th, 2013 in Culture » Society » News

And we’re off, to anywhere and everywhere, as we say ‘Shalom’ every week to different global travel destination. World cities, provincial towns, and even the most unassuming of suburbs are infused with Jewish history and culture, some of which is waiting to be discovered.

For the pious follower, the curious traveler, or the intrepid adventurer, we’ll unearth the best of what to do and where to go. Be it an emerging subculture, a historical landmark, or simply a triumph of art in any form, Jewish experiences are found around the world; and likely as well in your backyard.

It may be in the destination, the journey, or the company, but there is much to uncover and celebrate near and far, so hurry up and get going.

Shalom, Estonia


Although archival reports discuss the presence of Jews in what is now present-day Estonia, no permanent community was established until the 19th century. The largest congregation located in the capital, Tallinn, was founded in 1830. However, it wasn’t until 1865, by decree of Czar Alexander II, that Jewish “Nicolas soldiers” (also known as Kantonists) and their decedents, craftsmen, First Guild tradesmen, and those with a post-secondary education were permitted to settle in Estonia and other parts of czarist Russia beyond the designated territory, known as the Pale of Settlement. A year later, a congregation was established in Estonia’s second largest city, Tartu. A synagogue wasn’t erected in Tallinn until 1883, and likewise until 1901, in Tartu. Unfortunately, both were destroyed during World War II. During the remainder of the 19th century, settlements were formed in other cities such as Pärnu, Valga, and Viljandi. During the 1880’s, schools were opened that taught the Talmund, in addition to Jewish elementary schools in Tallinn. The majority of Estonian Jews in this period were illiterate, working as artisans or craftsmen. However, things changed when Jewish students began entering the University of Tartu by the end of the century.

In 1918, Estonia made its declaration of independence. Thus began a new era for the country’s population, Jews included. The newly independent state adopted a stance of tolerance towards all religious and ethnic minorities. In May 1919, the Estonian Congress of Jewish congregations met to discuss the new opportunities that were now available to the community. Consequently, Estonian Jews began entertaining the notion of cultural autonomy. A secondary school was established in Tallinn. As the newfound freedom grew, many Jewish societies emerged including the H. N. Bjalik Literature and Drama Society in 1918, and the Maccabi Sports Society in 1920. In 1925, the government passed the Act of Cultural Autonomy for Ethnic Minorities. The monumental law allowed minority groups numbering over 3000 the right to cultural self-determination. Within a year, the Jews had formed the Jewish Cultural Council, and the community declared cultural autonomy.

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