Jewish community negotiating secular, migration changes in Finland


Representing a rare continuation of Eastern European Ashkenazic Orthodoxy that survived the Shoah intact, the Jewish community in Finland now includes a significant number of Jews who have come from abroad and faces increasing secularization along with new influences. These changes “have led some members [to] opt for increasing adaptations to secular society and some for stricter Orthodoxy,” write Simo Muir (University College London) and Riikka Tuori (University of Helsinki) in the European Journal of Jewish Studies (published online in March). The researchers interviewed 101 of the 1,300 members comprising the country’s Jewish congregations.

The Jewish community in Finland was founded in the 19th century by Jewish members of the Russian army deployed in Finland and staying there after being discharged, with the first congregation organized in Helsinki in 1858. The community continued with the same population until the 1980s, when the demographics changed to include immigrants from Israel and Russia as well as new converts, who now make up a large part of active participants. The descendants of the original community had a basic knowledge of Judaism, but did not strictly observe Jewish dietary and other precepts. While remaining attached to their Jewish identity, and despite belonging to formally Orthodox congregations in which they still hold positions of power, they tend to be more secularized, mirroring the low religiosity of the surrounding Nordic society. While long frowned upon, intermarriage has become frequent among them, with their spouses refraining from converting. Among the “new Orthodox,” there are both some young members of the original group, who are rediscovering their Jewish identity through an Orthodox framework, and Orthodox Jews who have moved to Finland as adults. The influence of Chabad Lubavitch, as well as of the religious Zionist Orthodoxy offered by Bnei Akiva emissaries, have also played a role. Among the new converts (since the mid-2000s), many come from a Finnish Christian background.

While mainly attending synagogue only on major feasts, descendants of the original group remained attached to Jewish life rituals. However, especially with the rise of intermarriages, circumcision has become a debated issue. While being uncircumcised was prohibited in Jewish kindergartens and schools, circumcision ceased to be a prerequisite in 2018. As active synagogue-goers, the new Orthodox are not satisfied with merely replicating the past but want to make sure there is a halakhic background for what is practiced in the community. With the support of the above-mentioned international Orthodox organizations, they have prompted a stricter observance, transforming the previous liberal atmosphere in the community. They have also challenged existing customs, and “previous nonissues such as the serving of wine by Jews alone and banning the tearing of toilet paper during Shabbat have gained prominence,” Muir and Tuori write. Increasingly, newly arrived members are Israelis, “many with Sephardic backgrounds,” and “some Ashkenazic melodies have been replaced with Sephardic ones.” While some members of the original group do not like such changes, others welcome them as contributing to a revival of the community. New converts have to find their way among these different approaches, sometimes mixing different elements. “In a relatively short period of time [the community] has shifted from its homogenous Ashkenazic roots towards a Sephardicized hybrid, mostly due to rising Israeli influences.”

(European Journal of Jewish Studies,