In Estonia, Igniting a Jewish Revival

At the Jewish Community Center (JCC) in Tallinn, Irina Shlick is helping to build Estonia's Jewish future.

By Irina Shlick - JCC Tallinn Senior Program Manager | November 18, 2021

A passionate Jewish leader and committed professional, Irina Shlick is cultivating a Jewish future across Estonia.

Once declared judenfrei (“free of Jews”) by the Nazis, Estonia is now three decades into a powerful Jewish revival. In Tallinn, Estonia’s capital, and across the country, Jews are rediscovering and cultivating a Jewish life all their own. A former Szarvas camper and now senior project manager at the Jewish Community Center (JCC) in Tallinn, Irina Shlick is helping to lead Estonian Jewry into the future. Here, she talks about how she’s building Jewish life across the country. 

Each year, the Estonian Jewish community gathers to light the first Chanukah candle, some 300 people in all. Sometimes literally, sometimes metaphorically, we then pass that flame from city to city, until all of Estonia blazes with the light of our proud Jewish community. 

This event is a good metaphor for Estonian Jewry — rescued from darkness, we’re now igniting a Jewish revival. And thanks to JDC, I get to light the flame. 

This has been a long time coming. Before the Second World War, Estonian Jewry had a strong and active presence throughout the country. But that changed when the Nazis took power— Estonia was the only country declared judenfrei (“free of Jews”) in the Baltic region. 

Years later, Jewish life has returned to Estonia. We’re still here, and we’re making history. 

That being said, it took a long time for our community to heal and build back. During the Soviet era, Jewish life was underground and minimal. I grew up in Latvia, but the situation was similar there: My parents didn’t have a Jewish community, and I didn’t know I was Jewish until I was 12, when I started attending a Jewish day school. 

I enjoyed the school, and this made my parents happy: —I had found my community. Now, years later, I see that my generation was a bridge between our parents and the wider Jewish world. We brought Jewish life back to our parents, and now their generation has returned to the community. 

If Jewish day school introduced me to Jewish life, then Szarvas — the JDC-Ronald S. Lauder Foundation international Jewish summer camp in Hungary — completely changed my life. My first summer there, I met Jews from across the world. By summer’s end, I decided I would become a Jewish leader, and I joined a leadership training group for young madrichim (counselors). The next year, I was a unit head. 

Irina Shlick

Though I had learned a lot at Jewish day school, I felt even more connected to Jewish life at Szarvas. Szarvas was and is a special place — people come from all over the world, sharing both similar and different experiences, participating in the same events, but bringing their own perspectives. At Szarvas, I discovered a greater Jewish world. 

This is the kind of camp experience every child should have. They should discover their lifelong Jewish friends. That’s what Szarvas gave me.

And it also gave me the confidence to lead. After my time as a madricha, I decided to become a Jewish community professional, creating programs that would bring Jews together. I knew that I wanted to dedicate my life to building a Jewish future, first in my native Latvia and now in Estonia, where I’ve lived for about a decade. 

At the Jewish Community Center (JCC) in Tallinn, I now create initiatives that promote Jewish education, history, and spiritual life, as well as conduct leadership training and professional development seminars. Each year, the JCC aims to reach about 1,500 people, including families, students, toddlers, and the elderly. We like to say we’re a home for everybody. 

The JCC staff, too, is like a Jewish family. Many of us have known each other for almost 20 years. Back then, at camp, we spent our days laughing and having fun. All these years later, we’re still having fun — but now we’re doing it as Jewish professionals. 

For me, working at the JCC is more than just a 9-to-5 job. It’s my passion, my love — it’s, I don’t know, my particular flavor of craziness. 

It doesn’t matter what kind of programming we’re doing, what kind of camp we’re running, what kind of class we’re teaching: We want to show people that it’s important to be Jewish. When they come to the JCC, the experience piques their curiosity and ignites their passion for Jewish life. They leave wanting more. This is how we’re building Jewish community.  

Estonia’s Jewish community may be relatively small, but it’s not about the numbers. And it isn’t just a physical space, an office, a school, or even the community building. It’s about a shared feeling of safety, celebration, and togetherness.

The pandemic has tested our collective strength, but it’s also strengthened intergenerational relationships. Young people came to the welfare center and asked how they could help. They delivered packages and called elderly clients, just to ask them how they were doing. 

I saw that the Jewish community wasn’t just a source of Jewish life, but a life-sustaining force in itself, a place where vulnerable community members could seek help, and others could give it.

Because of the pandemic, I’ve started to think of us as the Maccabees. Like them, we’re a small community facing a big challenge, fighting back against the darkness. And I think we’ll overcome it. I think we’ll come back stronger.

I believe in a bright, vibrant, Jewish future, and for me, building a strong community is the most important part of building a Jewish Estonia.

My goal is to show people that Jewish life is meaningful, possible, and stimulating. I believe in a bright, vibrant, Jewish future, and for me, building a strong community is the most important part of building a Jewish Estonia. Our future is only as strong as the relationships we nurture today. 

I can thank JDC for giving us the resources to do this important works. From Szarvas until now, I’ve been introduced to a greater Jewish world — experiences that also showed me that I could be a strong Jewish leader at home. 

So much has changed since my parents were my age. My kids and grandkids will grow up knowing what it means to be Jewish. And if that’s my legacy, then I’ll know I’ve done something right

Irina Shlick serves as Senior Program Manager for JCC Tallinn, where she works with new and existing partnership organizations and foundations. Prior to joining JCC Tallinn, Irina was a Youth Center Director in the Riga Jewish community as well as a Camp Director at Olameinu, a Jewish Summer camp in the Baltics. Shlick is currently studying to be a Jewish Educator at Bar Ilan University and is a board member and volunteer in the Limmud Baltics organization. 

Global Jewish Reflections is a recurring feature highlighting the spiritual wisdom of rabbis, Jewish educators, and others from around the JDC world.

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