Until 1809, Finland and Sweden were a single country, and the two countries still share much in terms of their legal systems. Yet, writes Annika Hernroth-Rothstein—herself a native of Sweden—the two Jewish communities could not be more different. Swedish Jews suffer from widespread anti-Semitism, while Finland has relatively little by European standards. Moreover, Finnish Jewry seems to display a self-confidence that their Swedish coreligionists lack. “Finnish Jews were said to be tougher, taller, and even quieter than their Swedish counterparts,” Hernroth-Rothstein notes. In this exploration of Finnish Jewry, excerpted from her forthcoming book, she tries to answer the question of why this should be, beginning with attitudes toward the Jewish state:
Finland and Israel share many similarities: both [are] small countries with large and powerful neighbors living under an ever-present military threat, resulting in both a strong sense of patriotism and of common responsibility for military service and social preparedness. . . . There is a natural brotherhood between the two nations, and the Jews of Finland face little to no threat when openly expressing their allegiance to the Jewish state. The open and clear link between the Diaspora and Israel has strengthened the Jewish community of Finland and helped it grow.
When I sit down with Dan Kantor, the man who steered the community for 38 years before [retiring from the position], he tells me that the Finnish Jewish community’s biggest strength is its members’ sense of solidarity. Almost 90 percent of all Finnish Jews are paying members of the community, in comparison with its neighbor Sweden where the same number is around 20 percent. According to Dan Kantor, even people who never set foot inside a synagogue or a Jewish school pay the annual fee, because they feel responsible for their fellow Jews.
Every week, there are well-attended Shabbat services in the Jugendstil synagogue [in Helsinki], and the prayers are read from a prayer book with a text in both Hebrew and Finnish. . . . There are remnants of Finland’s dramatic Jewish history everywhere; from the Torah scroll that was rescued by a Jewish soldier in the Crimean War and the crown above the ark that was taken from an old Swedish warship before it was sunk, to the two menorahs on the sanctuary’s front wall with stars of David hanging from them—each star inscribed with the name of a Jewish soldier who died defending Finland in one of its many battles. The synagogue and its interior are not only a living tribute to Finnish Jewry, but also a tribute to these Jews’ position and contribution to that history: shaping it rather than merely being shaped by it.