The Jews of Helsinki, Finland

Wherever you want to go in central Helsinki (Finland), odds are that it’s within walking distance. After climbing a curved street from the massive Eliel Saarinen designed railway station, I was in front of a large domed ecru colored building – the Adath Israel Synagogue, built in 1906. Not looking too security-conscious, was a friendly guard who happily greeted me at the side entrance where joyous voices of young children filled the air. Although the Finns have a reputation of being shy, I believe it’s really politeness.

Here on these grounds adjacent to the synagogue, is a complex of buildings which includes a kindergarten and school with over 100 students. They stay here until 9th grade, or 15 years old. Along with the regular Finnish school curriculum, they are taught Jewish history, religion and Hebrew. A home for senior citizens with kosher kitchen facilities houses about 10 elderly people who seem to enjoy having visits from the young children.

Dan Kantor, a forty something Finnish born second generation Jew, is executive secretary and responsible for the administration of the Jewish community center of Helsinki. The office where we sit is tidy, large and modest. There are no fancy architecturally designed desks or rare oil paintings. Portraits of former presidents of the synagogue fill one wall while the other has framed photos of previous rabbis.

The actual number of Jewish families in Finland is not surprisingly small. “There are about 700 addresses in Helsinki, Turku and Tampere to whom we wend out information,” says the fluently English speaking man. “I think that we must have 1500 or 1600 Jewish people in this country. Of these there are over 500 members of the Orthodox synagogue, although most, he admits are probably Conservative when outside the shul.

“Services are held in the 600 seat synagogue according to Orthodox tradition. Our Torahs are old, from the 19th century. They’re from Russia and Poland. Every morning we get a minyan. But outside the synagogue, it’s a different story. Most of the Finnish Jews are not very religious. They come on holidays and special occasions and keep only a few traditions. We don’t see them every Sabbath.” Asked why these same people send their children for schooling here, Kantor feels it’s their own way of keeping Jewish life alive.

“One reason is that we have many mixed marriages – about 50%. We Finnish Jews have a certain system. As you know according to our law, the mother must be Jewish. But here, in a mixed marriage situation, you are able to enroll your children in our school if one of the parents is Jewish. And if only the father is a Jew, the child can even have a Bar Mitzvah if he has attended our school from beginning to end. The mother doesn’t have to convert. But it’s a very firm condition that the child must attend the school,” he emphasis.

The biggest problem for Jewish life in Finland comes from the inside not the outside, Assimilation is usual since we don’t have any anti-Semitism or problems, here,” Kantor tells me. “It you want to live an Orthodox Jewish life, it’s possible.”

As I head back to my hotel, I think about returning in a few years to see if there are any changes. But as it stands, the Jewish Finns seem to enjoy the status quo.
The Jewish community of Helsinki. Malminkatu, 26
Tel 09 58603121 FAX 09 694 89116