The Jewish community in Finland is not one that is particularly large. Today, the Jewish community is comprised of a total of about 1,500 individuals out of a total population of about 5 million people. Despite its small size, however, the community is one that has its own interesting history and characteristics.
The first Jewish individual did not settle on Finnish soil until 1782, so for all intents and purposes, Jewish history here is rather young. Until 1809 the territory that is now Finland was part of the Swedish Kingdom, and under Swedish law Jews were only allowed to settle in 3 different territories within the kingdom, none of which were located in Finland. In 1809, Sweden lost control of Finland in the Napoleonic Wars, however the prohibition of additional Jewish settlements continued as the Swedish constitution and legal system remained.
What we know today as Jewish Finnish history began in the 19th century when Jewish soldiers who served in the Russian army in Finland were permitted to stay in Finland following their discharge. According to a decree that was passed in 1858, all discharged Russian soldiers and their families were permitted to live in Finland, regardless of their religion. Later in 1889, the government issued an administrative decree that once again limited the rights of the Jewish population and the towns in which they were permitted to live. Any violation of this decree by the Jews resulted in expulsion from the country.
Over the years, this caused the Jewish population within Finland to drastically decline. By the end of the 1880s, there were only about 1,000 Jews living in Finland. Finally in 1918, an act was passed that allowed Jews to become Finnish nationals for the first time. However, by this time, the Jewish population was extremely small and nearly obsolete. The Jewish community of Tampere, the third largest city in Finland, ceased operations in 1981 because they did not have enough members in order to remain. It appeared that after decades of intermarriage and immigration to Israel, the Jewish community of Finland did not have the numbers to survive.
What revived the Jewish community of Finland was the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the 1990s, Jews began immigrating from Russia to Israel, Germany, and the United States in earnest. But some families decided to immigrate to Finland, since it is Russia’s closest capitalist neighbor. This helped to breathe new life into the Jewish community of Finland, and to establish the close ties it now maintains with Russia’s Jewish community. Today, 75% of the children who attend the Jewish school in Helsinki have at least one immigrant parent.
Presently, about 1,200 of the country’s 1,500 Jewish residents live in Helsinki, where there is both a Jewish Community Center and a Chabad Lubavitch, which includes a kosher deli. There is also an additional synagogue in the city of Turku, where the Jewish community includes approximately 200 member. Finnish Jews have made many important contributions to history and culture, including the famous painter Sam Vanni, and composer Dr. Simon Parmet. Ben Zyskowicz became the first Finnish Jew to be elected member of Parliament in 1979. He continues to serve there today.