Behind the Headlines: Progressive Judaism Makes Headway Throughout the Former Soviet Union

Just five years ago, there was only one congregation of Progressive Jews in the Soviet Union, a close-knit group of Muscovites who quietly taught themselves Hebrew, lit candles on Shabbat, celebrated holidays and called themselves Hineini.

Today that congregation is still going strong — and it has been joined by 26 other Progressive congregations in places throughout the former Soviet Union such as St. Petersburg, Omsk, Perm, Volgograd, Kiev, Minsk, Tallinn, Riga and Almaty, formerly known as Alma-Ata.

The dramatic burst of activity highlights how Progressive Judaism is taking off here, even with only one full-time Progressive rabbi in all of the former Soviet states.

“In terms of numbers, the former Soviet Union has a relatively high percentage of the Jews in the world,” said Donald Day, president of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, an umbrella organization for Reform, Liberal and Progressive synagogues around the world.

“We think there’s a tremendous opportunity to develop congregations and bring Jews there closer to religion,” Day said during a recent visit here.

“People are fascinated by this new approach and we’re only limited by the amount of outreach we can do,” said Rabbi Ariel Stone, who left her job at Temple Israel of Greater Miami 10 months ago to become the spiritual leader of Congregation HaTikvah in the Ukrainian city of Kiev.

“I get phone calls from people I’ve never met and towns I’ve never been to,” Stone said. “People are asking: ‘Can you come here and teach us about Progressive Judaism?’ It’s very exciting.”

The new congregations in the former Soviet Union are the result of work by the WUPJ, which set up shop in Moscow just a few years ago and currently devotes an annual budget of $500,000 to the region.

TRAINING NEW LEADERS

Since the group’s establishment, it has run scores of seminars, summer camps and holiday celebrations — often overseen by visiting rabbis from England, Israel and the United States — introducing Reform Judaism to the land of Stalin’s ghost.

According to Sergei Gusev, who oversees the WUPJ office here, many of the people who attended these events went back to their hometowns and established congregations.

Then the question arose: Who would be their spiritual leader?

The WUPJ recently devised an answer by setting up a two-year training institute in Moscow to provide the basics of a Progressive Jewish education for the fledgling leaders of the new congregations.

The first class of 11 students from Russia, Belarus and Ukraine just completed their initial year of studies.

When they finish their training next year they are expected to go back to their communities to work as lay Jewish leaders or to continue their studies at institutions like the Leo Baeck College in London, which already has a few rabbis-in-training from the former Soviet Union.

“Everything we are doing here has one goal: to help the congregations,” explained Gusev. “We have a group of students, and when they are finished they will work for the World Union.”

For the students, all of them in their early 20s and 30s, most of them raised with little or no Jewish education, the program offers new opportunities and a major shift of focus in their lives.

“I want to become a rabbi,” said Ina Pavlova, a 27-year-old from Kiev who used to teach Russian literature. “I know it’s very difficult and I will have to study again, but this is what I want.”

Alla Bachrach, a former nurse from the central Russian city of Perm, added, “For me, this program is a chance to learn about Judaism because I didn’t know anything about it. I never dreamed of becoming a rabbi but it is still very interesting to get a Jewish education.”

For the past year, the students have been living in a dorm and studying Jewish history and philosophy at Moscow Jewish University. Next year, they will alternate between studying in Moscow and working in their home cities.

The students say that Progressive Judaism seems to strike a deep chord here because it makes Judaism accessible for people raised with almost no understanding of their tradition.

Zinovy Kogan, who started the Hineini congregation in Moscow during the refusenik era and only later became affiliated with the Reform movement, said that Progressive Judaism’s emphasis on equality between men and women is a drawing point.

And, said Menachem Leibovic, the Jerusalem-based executive director of WUPJ’s program in the newly independent states, “We believe in developing rabbis from Russia.”

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