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Following a six-decade wait, Estonia's 3,000-strong Jewish community will inaugurate its new and only synagogue Wednesday in Tallinn in the presence of top Israeli dignitaries.
Israeli Vice Premier Shimon Peres is scheduled to attend the ceremonies along with Estonian Prime Minister Andrus Ansip, who made a personal donation to the project.
Estonian Chief Rabbi Shmuel Kot expressed hope that the new synagogue would strengthen the local Jewish identity.
"For a long time, it was not possible to practice Jewish life in Estonia," he said. "There was no rabbi, no kosher food ... no possibility to learn about Judaism."
"People will now have the possibility to feel as a Jew," he said.
Construction of the airy, ultramodern 180-seat synagogue started in 2005 in downtown Tallinn. The US$2 million price tag was shouldered by US-based Rohr Family Foundation and Estonian donators.
Kot said Jewish rules on synagogue design, including construction materials and decoration, made the project demanding. The Estonian architects responsible for the design made a field trip to Israel to get familiarized with the rigid requirements, he said.
Tallinn's previous synagogue, built in 1883, was destroyed in 1944 in air raids as Nazi troops fled the Red Army's advance. Tartu, a university town southeast of the capital, also had a synagogue, but it too was destroyed during the war.
Some 5,000 Jews lived in Estonia prior to World War II, enjoying cultural autonomy declared by the government in 1926.
The Soviet occupation of Estonia in 1940 led to the abrupt end of the Jewish cultural autonomy, and hundreds of Jews were deported, as were thousands of other Estonians.
When the Nazis invaded in 1941, a majority in the Jewish community managed to escape to the Soviet Union, but the roughly 1,000 Jews who remained behind were sent to concentration camps around Estonia.
They were later killed along with thousands of other Jews deported to Estonia from other European countries. Experts believe fewer than a dozen Jews survived the Holocaust in Estonia.
Today, most of Estonia's Jews reside in Tallinn.
In addition to religious services, the synagogue will prepare and distribute kosher foods in a restaurant and present the history of Jews in Estonia.
Ivar Leimus from the Estonian History Museum welcomed the new synagogue, hoping it would lead a re-emergence of Jewish life. "We are very happy that one part of the population has again received part of its identity back," historian Leimus said.
Kot agreed. "I believe that this new Jewish synagogue will bring people more and more closer to God, and closer to Jewish life and Jewish background."
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