There are, in historical archives, records of individual Jews being in Estonia as early as the 14th century. But the permanent Jewish settlement of Estonia did not begin until the 19th century, when they were granted the right to enter the region by a statute of Russian Tsar Alexander II in 1865. Jews with higher education, or who were skilled artisans or successful merchants, were allowed to settle in Estonia and other parts of the Russian Empire. Jewish cultural associations were established, as were, of course, Jewish congregations and houses of worship. The largest synagogues were built in Tallinn in 1883 and Tartu in 1901. Both of these were eventually destroyed in World War II during the Soviet bombing raids of March 1944. In 1913, there were 5 000 Jews living in Estonia, of whom 2 000 lived in Tartu and 1 100 in Tallinn.
At least 180 Estonian Jews, 70 of them volunteers, fought in the War of Independence (1918–1920) to help establish the Republic of Estonia. The creation of the Republic of Estonia in 1918 marked the beginning of a new era in the life of the Jews. From the very first days of her existence as a state, Estonia showed tolerance towards all the peoples inhabiting her territories. In 1925, the Act of Cultural Autonomy for Ethnic Minorities was enacted in Estonia, giving minority groups consisting of at least 3 000 individuals the right of self-determination in cultural matters. Financial support was provided by the state. Thus, in 1926 Jewish cultural autonomy was declared. For its tolerant policy towards Jews, a page was dedicated to the Republic of Estonia in the Golden Book of the Jewish National Fund in 1927. Once Estonian independence had been achieved, the number of Jewish organisations increased remarkably. The Jewish elementary school in Tallinn was founded during the War of Independence in 1919. The Jewish secondary school in Tallinn was founded in 1924. In the 1930s, there were over 4 300 Jews living in Estonia (0.4 percent of the population). There were three Jewish schools, and about 100 Jews were studying at the University of Tartu. In 1939, there were 32 different Jewish organisations active in Estonia.
With the Soviet occupation of Estonia in 1940, Jewish cultural autonomy, in addition to the activities of Jewish organisations, was terminated. The teaching of Hebrew and Yiddish, as well as lectures on Judaism and Jewish culture, were banned. All Jewish schools were closed and 414 Estonian Jews (10 percent of the Jewish community) were deported to Siberia in the course of the mass deportations of June 1941.
During the German occupation (1941–1944), the Nazis murdered approximately 1 000 Jews who had failed to flee Estonia (most went to the Soviet Union). During WWII, Estonia was the only German-occupied country where the Nazis were unable to provoke Jewish pogroms — there is not a single known case of Estonians killing a Jew on their own. In addition to the aforementioned Estonian Jews that were murdered by the Nazis, many Jews were transported to Nazi concentration camps in Estonia from other parts of Europe. Unfortunately, some Estonians collaborating with the Nazis participated in the crimes committed against the Jewish people. Estonia condemns the activities of all individuals — whether they were the representatives of a foreign power or Estonian citizens — who committed crimes against humanity and carried out mass repressions on Estonian territory. The Estonian Government continues to do everything possible to expose these crimes. "It is most regrettable that in collaboration with the occupation authorities, some Estonian citizens participated in such crimes committed against humanity. There is no justification for the participation of anyone in these shameful and morally condemnable acts. It is not important what motivated these people to act in this way. Even if they have not directly shed the blood of anyone, they are nevertheless morally responsible," said Estonian Prime Minister Andrus Ansip on 26 January 2006, International Holocaust Memorial Day.
On the Yad Vashem site in Jerusalem there is an avenue of trees that have been planted in honour of non-Jews who risked their lives to help Jews during the Holocaust. Alongside the names of Oskar Schindler and Raoul Wallenberg is the name of the Estonian writer and academic Uku Masing and a tree planted in his honour, for having saved a Jewish student during World War II.
During the second Soviet occupation (1944–1991), many Jews migrated to Estonia to escape the anti-Semitism prevalent in many parts of the USSR. Jews, for instance, often had difficulties gaining admittance to institutions of higher learning, especially in bigger cities. If young Jews were unable to find chances for furthering their education or for obtaining suitable employment in their home towns, they did not encounter such problems in Estonia. By 1960, 5 500 Jews were living in Estonia, about 80 percent of them in Tallinn. There was, however, no rebirth of Jewish cultural life, because of the Communist Party’s hostile policies towards Jews. From 1940 until 1988 the Estonian Jewish community, as elsewhere in the Soviet Union, had no organisations, associations nor even clubs.
At the end of the Soviet era the situation changed. In March 1988, the Jewish Cultural Society was established in Tallinn. After the restoration of Estonia's independence in 1991, the Jewish Cultural Society was reorganised and the Jewish Community was established in 1992. The Tallinn Jewish School was re-opened in 1990, being the first school for a national minority to be established in the restored Republic of Estonia. This is an official municipal school that functions on the basis of the national school curriculum and is oriented towards the integration of its students into Estonia's unified multi-cultural society. In 2000, a synagogue was opened in the Community's building.
Currently, the Jewish Community in Estonia consists of about 2 000 people. Most of them reside in Tallinn, but there are also significant Jewish communities in Tartu, Narva and Kohtla-Järve. The Jewish people have integrated successfully into Estonian society. Their umbrella organisation, the Jewish Community in Estonia, has declared that in Estonia there is no official anti-Semitism, and that for Jews Estonia is a safe country and one of the few nations in the world where the Jewish community does not require additional security measures.
Since 2004, the annual Jewish cultural festival "Ariel" has been held in Estonia. The festival, dedicated to various aspects of Jewish culture, includes book presentations, lectures, art shows, film screenings, radio programmes, and concerts.
On 16 May 2007 a new synagogue was opened in Tallinn. It was the first synagogue to open in Estonia since World War II. The synagogue accommodates 200 people and also functions as a cultural centre. It is located next to the Jewish School and the Community Centre.
Jewish literature has been translated into Estonian from both Hebrew and Yiddish, with one of the leading translators being the Estonian theologian Prof. Kalle Kasemaa, who has an honorary doctorate from the University of Haifa. "The Hebrew Poetry Anthology" in Estonian won an award for its translator, Kristiina Ross.
Internationally, the best known Estonian Jewish academic is Juri Lotman (1922–1993), the renowned professor of semiotics at the University of Tartu. There are also other internationally prominent members of the Estonian Jewish community, like Eri Klas, the world famous conductor.
Estonia has been officially observing International Holocaust Day since 27 January 2003. The Holocaust is part of the Estonian school curriculum, addressed in connection with the events of World War II. The subject is taught in grades five and nine, and in detail in the 12th grade modern history course. Thanks to good co-operation with Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority in Israel, it has been possible to show the film "Outcast" in Estonian secondary schools on Holocaust Day since 2005. In January 2007, there was a presentation in Tallinn's Museum of Occupations of methodically prepared Holocaust teaching materials that had been produced in co-operation with Sweden's Living History Forum and the Task Force for International Co-operation on Holocaust Education, Remembrance and Research. The packet includes either Estonian- or Russian-language printed material as well as a CD-ROM and DVD containing illustrative material.
All Estonian Governments have condemned the Holocaust. Several Holocaust sites, for example in Klooga, Kalevi-Liiva, Vaivara, and Kiviõli have been officially designated and commemorated.
During his official visit to Poland in January 2005, President of Estonia Arnold Rüütel participated in the commemoration ceremony dedicated to the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp.
In March 2005, Estonian Minister of Education and Research Toivo Maimets participated in the opening of a new Yad Vashem museum in Jerusalem, where he officially handed over the personal belongings of people who had perished at the Klooga concentration camp that had until then been displayed in the Estonian History Museum.
In 1998, President of Estonia Lennart Meri convened the International Commission for the Investigation of Crimes against Humanity, consisting of Uffe Ellemann-Jensen, Paul Goble, Nicholas Lane, Peter Reddaway, Arseny Roginsky, and Baron Wolfgang von Stetten, and chaired by the internationally respected retired Finnish diplomat Max Jacobson. The Commission's mandate was to investigate the crimes against humanity that were committed on the territory of the Republic of Estonia during the Nazi and Soviet occupations. The results of the Commission’s investigations are available to the public at www.historycommission.ee.
In January 2012 the Jewish Community in Estonia opened the Gallery of Memory, where the names of nearly a thousand Estonian Jews that perished in the Holocaust are preserved. The main source of funding for the Gallery of Memory was the Government of the Republic.