Helsinki Synagogue

In 1900, the city of Helsinki gave a plot to the Jewish community on which to build a synagogue on Malminkatu Street in Kamppi. The area had been settled by Jews when the Jewish market selling old clothes known as the narinkka moved to the Simonkenttä Field nearby.

However, the congregation had great difficulties to collect sufficient funds. It was not until 1904 that the congregation was able to hire architect Jac. Ahrenberg to design the synagogue, which included space also for a school.  The construction work commenced in the spring of 1905 and the building was finished in August 1906.

Jac. Ahrenbergin luonnos Helsingin synagogasta v. 1905.
Jac. Ahrenberg’s sketch of Helsinki Synagogue in 1905.

The architecture of the three-story building adheres to an international, eclectic style as was common for 19th century synagogues in Central Europe and England, in which the facades are characteristically defined through the use of round arches. The street facade displays three two-storey high, symmetrically central windows. On both sides, three small round windows carry Star of David motifs. The smooth, sparsely decorated stucco facades do not reflect the character of the building; only the central, highly visible cupola reveals its religious use.

The rectangular synagogue hall is centrally symmetrical and surrounded on three sides by balconies, supported by columns. The capitals of the columns are decorated with gilt details inspired by Jugend style. The metal supports of the balcony railings are in Jugend style as well. The cupola is supported by four slender cast-iron columns, the capitals of which are decorated with gilt flower petals. The cupola is encircled by round windows and embellished with stars. As a contrast, the wall surfaces are plain and smooth, decorated only with a colourful frieze.

The wall facing Jerusalem at the end of the central aisle is a vault (apsis), painted bright blue and decorated with golden stars. The vault contains a cabinet, the holy ark or Aron Hakodesh, covered with an embroidered curtain. The cabinet houses the Torah scrolls, the texts of Five Books of Moses. The sculptures depicting lions, other animals, and plants in a decorative folk art style that surround the cabinet were, according to tradition, brought from the first prayer room in Finland, which was at Suomenlinna Fortress. On the arch above the ark are sculptures of two lions carrying the Tablets of the Law, which are surrounded by Classical acanthus leaves and rose decorations. In front of the vault is a reader’s pulpit. Underneath the cupola in the middle of the hall on a raised platform is the reading table, the bimah, above which hangs a big chandelier. The interiors are preserved exceptionally well except for the balcony railings, which, however, have now been restored back to their original look. When the congregation centre was built in 1961, the main entrance of the synagogue was moved to the side wall.

In addition to the synagogue hall, the building houses also offices and a small prayer room, a so-called minyan room, where the weekday morning services are held and which is used as a classroom by the school.

Social function of the synagogue

In Finland, besides Helsinki, there is a synagogue only in Turku; the rest of Scandinavia adds only a few more. Beyond Scandinavia, most of the mainland European synagogues were destroyed during the Second World War. The synagogues in Finland are exceptional in that they survived the War’s ravages. Because Jews settled fairly recently in Scandinavia and their numbers were comparatively small, Scandinavian synagogues, in general, were built relatively late.

Architecturally the synagogues in Finland constitute an interesting final point in the stylistic development of the traditional synagogue building. As historic monuments, they show that the Jewish minority was accepted in Finnish society, which is also revealed by the synagogues’ prominent location facing the street. Simultaneously, the synagogues have played an important role for the Jews in Finland by helping to strengthen their culture. They serve not only as centres for religious life, but also provide social activities and a venue for teaching traditions to future generations.