In a joyous occasion for the Jewish community of Estonia, Tallinn’s Grand Synagogue recently celebrated its 13th anniversary. Completed in 2007, the sleek, ultramodern building can comfortably seat 180 congregants. Additionally, the seating area has the capacity to temporally increase its holding size to 230 seats in case of concerts or other public events.
The history of Tallinn’s synagogue — much like the history of its Jewish community — is as rich, as it is both dramatic and uplifting at the same time. The city’s original synagogue was completed towards the latter part of the 19th century, at a time when Jewish cultural life in Estonia was at its high water mark. Jewish religious and cultural institutions proliferated at an incredible pace in Tallinn, as well as Estonia’s other cities during this era and continued to grow and flourish as the twentieth century wore on. Tragically, the events of the Second World War obliterated and swept away virtually every vestige of Jewish life in Estonia, including the synagogue, which was destroyed by a Soviet bombing raid on the city in 1944.
Sadly, the country’s Jewish community was not able to restore itself to its former glory in the aftermath of the war, or even recover a modicum of normality due to the intransigence of Soviet authorities. The Soviet Union, having re-occupied Estonia at the end of the war, couldn’t conceive of tolerating any organizations — cultural or otherwise — that operated autonomously of the direct control and supervision of the authorities. Soviet authorities directly forbade the rebuilding of the synagogue as well as the reconstitution of any semblance of Jewish communal organizations. For the next half-a-century, the Jews of Estonia were left completely without any places of worship or buildings of cultural significance and had to contend with practicing their culture behind closed doors.
When Soviet power collapsed in the early 1990’s and Estonia regained its sovereignty, the country’s Jewish community began to blossom once again. Jewish cultural and religious institutions and associations began to propagate and flourish. In the context of this renaissance of Jewish life in Estonia, moves began in the early 2000’s to re-establish a Jewish house of worship in the country, with the foundation stone of the new synagogue being laid in 2005.
When viewed from within this context, it becomes possible to see that for Estonia’s Jews, the new synagogue, does not necessarily represent something “new”, but rather symbolizes the continuous survival of Jewish traditions, the latest step made by Estonia’s Jewish community on its long historical path.
The main thrust and financial support for the realization of this idea has come from the famous Jewish-Estonian businessman and philanthropist — Alexander Bronstein. The building was named ‘Beit Bella’, in honor of Mr. Bronstein’s mother. The Colombian-American entrepreneur and philanthropist George Rohr also made great contributions to the synagogue’s completion.