Jewish Rebirth in Estonia

Children at a JDC-supported Jewish kindergarten program in Estonia.
Children at a JDC-supported Jewish kindergarten program in Estonia.

by Asher Ostrin

A few days ago I held in my hand a copy of a legal document that will someday find its way into JDC’s contemporary history. It’s a testament to our years of investment in people and resources to achieve a first in Jewish history: the creation of Jewish community where none existed for generations.

Many reading this account would not be able to read the document in the original, but it’s not dissimilar to others of its type around the world. It is, after all, a bland, legal contract with no particular import. But for those who do understand the historical context, it is a gem, and has extraordinary value far beyond the sums of money mentioned in it.

The document is a mortgage and to understand its significance, we’ll need to go back over two decades.

Tallinn, Estonia. September, 1990. The Soviet Union is in its death throes but few, anywhere in the world, recognize that. Two senior JDC staff members are in Tallinn as part of a first time trip to several cities in the USSR with significant Jewish populations to begin to explore what will be JDC’s involvement in the USSR. We are there by invitation of the Kremlin as part of its efforts to “open up” Soviet society to the West. As one of several trips by several teams of JDC staff to scout out the territory, we’re there to formulate a policy for JDC’s re-entry into the USSR. This part of the world was a mystery and we knew little about the general environment, and even less about the Jews there. And so the first mission was fact finding:

Who are the Jews there, and how are they organized? How can JDC make an impact in this newly opened region? What are the potential obstacles? What are the resources available in each city? And so on.

This is the very beginning – the building blocks of program that we now associate today with JDC in the FSU and the Baltics. There was no welfare program. “Jewish Renewal” was not part of our lexicon. JCCs and leadership development were pipe dreams, if they were discussed at all. And to even talk about “Jewish Community” after the Nazi onslaught and the Soviets’ decades-long efforts to obliterate Jewish life, was too fantastic even to be contemplated.

But Tallinn was especially memorable because the Jews in this city were more organized than almost anywhere else. True, the odds were stacked against them: a small Jewish population of about 4,500, they were Russian speakers in a state beginning to emphasize its Estonian roots. They were members of a small religious minority whose calendar was suppressed, whose education system was nonexistent, and who lacked functioning synagogues or any Jewish property at all.

But there was a small welfare society, run by a few retired Jews (mostly women) who visited the needy elderly and provided some food and donated clothing (primarily from those who were emigrating). There was a newly established Jewish cultural organization that had just run a two-week camp. Its leaders told us of their plans to open a Jewish school in several weeks, but what impressed us most about that “dream” was its implausibility. They had no textbooks. No facility. No curriculum. And this was still, after all, the USSR.

In sum, some well-meaning people who wanted to revive Jewish life believed that they could make it happen and create community. We were inspired by their passion, but our enthusiasm was tempered by the reality we were familiar with from our visits to other cities. We promised to send in a library of some 900 volumes of Jewish interest translated into Russian. Perhaps the library would be a place for Jews to learn, to meet one another, and to begin rudimentary Jewish programming. That was Tallinn in 1990.

Last week I visited Tallinn again and was curious about the community I left behind so many years before. JDC’s work in Tallinn, as in the rest of the Baltics, is carried out by its Europe team, and not by the FSU department, and what I witnessed is wholly to their credit.

Today one can speak of something inconceivable during my visit 23 years ago: There is a Jewish community in Tallinn. A vibrant, pulsating Jewish community. A Jewish community that has a flagship campus that hosts a JCC, a synagogue, and yes, a Jewish school with classes from first grade through high school.

There is a Hesed, a welfare society, run by young Tallinn Jewish professionals, graduates of JDC’s leadership development program. Volunteers of all ages are the lifeblood of the program. Most of the young people were out of the city – in summer camps for which they pay tuition, begun by JDC.

And the library that JDC sent in more than two decades ago still functions, with pride of place in the JCC.

Is it real? Will it last?

During the last year the community reached a conclusion that the absence of a Jewish preschool was a problem for several reasons: the Jewish elementary school lacked a “natural feeder;” preschools serve as magnets to engage young families just beginning their Jewish odyssey; they are a tool for strengthening community cohesion. To address this lacunae, the community needed to have a stand-alone facility fashioned to meet the requirements of the European Union for an educational setting for that age.

In another time, and certainly in many other places, JDC would be the first address to which communities turn for funding. But in Tallinn the community put together a business plan that included demographic projections, projected income from tuition, local fundraising scenarios in a community committed to this project, a symbolic grant from JDC, and so on. And for the missing amount, they went to a local bank and took out a 25-year mortgage.

A mortgage means that they had to supply collateral, that they had to have faith in their community’s ability to sustain itself, that they had to present a plan that not only satisfies their members, but an external system that looks at these plans with a critical, professional eye. It requires vision, leadership, and commitment. And it is evidence that out of the ember we found in Tallinn in 1990, a community was born.

Asher Ostrin is a senior executive at JDC and the former director of their FSU department.