Reflections on Estonia
So, today I’m sat at home, reflecting on the fact that last week I was in Estonia.
To get to Tallinn from Helsinki, you take a ferry. It takes two hours and it was a surprising chilled out ride and gave all of us a chance to reflect on what we’d done in Finland, and what we might see in Estonia.
On disembarking, we did exactly what you’d wouldn’t expect – all our luggage was bundled onto a mini bus, and then we were able to walk to the hotel. It did seem odd; given how many times you get told not to leave things unattended!
After lunch we headed over to the community centre site, which also holds the school and synagogue – this building (Beit Bella) was built and dedicated in 2007 and was the first since the destruction of the original building in WWII. We met various members of the staff at the centre, and had the opportunity to visit the Jewish Museum which is also housed there. It might be small, but in this case, small is beautiful. Our guide was able to translate most of the text in the exhibits – currently it is in both Russian and Estonian, but will soon be updated to include English. I believe they also have audio guides for those who currently want English. We were told that on a recent open evening for museums, approximately 400 people came through the doors.
The following day (Friday) was spent on our Estonian service project. Dividing into groups, some of us made challah, some made challah covers and those of us left over, and that includes me, were involved in decorating Shabbat candles. Given that I’m at best ‘artistically challenged’, and our teacher only had a few words of English we had need of our wonderful translator to explain decoupage. But even so we managed to produce something, and I was actually quite proud of the results.
The results of our morning’s efforts were then packed up in nice baskets, along with fruit and chocolate, and again, with a translator, in small groups, we set off to deliver our bounty to elderly members of the community. The gentleman my group visited was very interesting – he had been evacuated from Tallinn as a small child further into what was then the Soviet Union, and they’re temporary home was bombed out, they escaped with just the clothes they wore from the resulting fires. After that he received an education, and became a boxing champion at university, a fact that was to come into good use later on when as an engineer supervising prisoners rebuilding factories destroyed by the Nazis. He then went onto work on Nuclear submarines, before returning with his late wife and family to Tallinn. Now, his grand children live abroad, and he was incredibly proud to tell us about them and his family in Israel.
But the real Shabbat miracle occurred with another group, they had gone to see a military veteran, who on discovering that one of the group was Israeli told them of family that he had lost touch with. But not for long, my Israeli friend asked for the address he had to be translated from Russian, and he was able to find someone in Israel who knew them and put them back into contact!
After that we went to the kindergarten, to see the children go through their Shabbat programme, which I have to say was beyond cute. Many people may have seen it here in the UK with our own kindergartens and primary schools, but it was somehow comforting to know that however different and diverse a Jewish community may be, there are somethings that still stay the same. Plus they gad the most amazing challah with streusel on the top – I tried to find someone who would get me the recipe, but I’m told the secret ingredient is that the chef at the kindergarten simply loves the children! Either that, or she won’t tell
Our Shabbat programme involved dinner with members of the local community. A nice moment – after Kiddush was made, but before hamotzi, one of the gentlemen called all the men out of the room, they returned a few moments later with flowers for every lady in the room, an incredibly touching gesture and a way to remember Estonia.
Shabbat morning saw us on a walking tour of the Old Town, which is stunning, and has many beautiful medieval buildings, and a gorgeously decorated Russian Orthodox church. Sadly, none of the Jewish buildings in that part of the city have survived until now.
Later in the evening, one of the community leaders, Gennadi Gramberg came to give us a talk on the history of the community (info can be found on the community website - http://www.ejc.ee/). That was followed by going out for dinner with more of our peers from the community, which included Havdalah.
Our Sunday, and final full day, saw us visiting Kadriorg Palace and ground, which was built by Peter the Great of Russia for his wife Catherine and their family as a seaside palace. Now it is an art museum and park.
The afternoon saw us returning to the community centre. We met with local Madrichim over pizza and found out about the youth programmes in the Baltic. But that wasn’t the best part of the day – that was seeing the completion and dedication of the first Torah scroll specifically for the Estonian community (http://estonianworld.com/life/estonian-jews-celebrate-new-torah-scroll/). That morning it have been taken on a symbolic journey around former Jewish sites before being brought the community centre for the final verses to be completed, two of the gentlemen of our group were invited to ‘write’ a letter, which was an incredible honour for them. It was an amazing atmosphere and party, which looked like it was due to take advantage of the long summer days and run on late.
Sadly, we had to leave as we were scheduled to have dinner with young families and as that included their children, it meant leaving early so that the kids weren’t out too late. It was a fun evening; our hosts had made a music quiz for us, and what really made it was that they were so pleased to see that we were interested and willing to engage with the community that they had brought us some small gifts – I’m now the proud owner of and Estonia mug!
Monday was a travel day – you’ll be pleased to know that going home was much easier than getting there.
Overall, I’m glad I went, I met so many incredible people, heard wonderful stories and got to participate in what may well be a once in a lifetime event for the community with the Torah scroll.
What lessons can we learn – well the first thing is how united the community is there, while the Rabbi may be Chabad, the community is so small that every Jew is made welcome.
Secondly, they have fantastically well-developed programmes for their youth, young adults and families. It’s something I’d like to find out more about – because I think it could be implemented here as well. A lot of them seem to be social and cultural, rather than religious based for the adults, and it helps keep people together and involved. The future leaders will come from this.
And lastly, at the risk of sounding like I work for Tallinn’s tourist board, I’d say go visit. There is a museum as I mentioned, and a kosher restaurant, apparently it takes 25 min to walk from the cruise terminal.