Russian Emigre Finds Jews More Open to Reform Judaism

When Victor Rashkovsky left the Soviet Union 25 years ago, he had, like most Soviet Jews, little Jewish knowledge.

When Rashkovsky returned to Moscow earlier this month, he did so as a changed person — and with a purpose: Now a Reform rabbi, he came for two weeks to conduct Passover seders in Moscow and to try to help build a liberal congregation of intellectuals.

“There is a spiritual vacuum” in the Russian Jewish community, said Rashkovsky, “and it has to be filled.”

After emigrating to the United States in the 1970s, Rashkovsky was teaching the history of Soviet film and working on a doctoral dissertation at the University of Cincinnati when, at the age of 37, he entered the Reform movement’s seminary.

Although that move was atypical for recent Russian immigrants to the United States — only four such immigrants have received ordination from the liberal seminaries in the United States during the past 15 years — Rashkovsky said that it was a “natural choice” for him.

Indeed, he sees events that happened in his life as examples of divine providence that led him to eventually seek ordination.

Born in Kiev in 1940, Rashkovsky’s family fled the city the following year – - on the train that was one of the last to leave the Ukrainian capital before the Nazis arrived.

“If we did not leave Kiev then, my life would have ended in Babi Yar,” he says, referring to the mass execution of Jews on the outskirts of Kiev.

Given his lack of Jewish background, Rashkovsky had a long way to go when he entered the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1977.

“When I decided to become a rabbi, I didn’t even know the alef-beis,” he said.

Since receiving his ordination in 1983, he has been a rabbi in a small Conservative Jewish congregation in Oak Ridge, Tenn.

Rashkovsky returned here to find an evolving — and pluralistic — Jewish community in Russia.

During the Soviet era, when the Communist regime actively suppressed religious expression, Orthodox Judaism was the only option for those seeking Judaism.

Now, says Rashkovsky, “the way of Orthodox Jewry appears to be unacceptable for most Russian Jews. The second option — ethnic identity — is inevitably leading to assimilation in a few generations because it lacks spiritual roots.”

He believes that Russian Jews can regain their tradition if they familiarize themselves with liberal Judaism. It’s a change that appears to be already taking place.

According to a poll whose results will soon be released, 22 percent of Russian Jews said they felt closest to Reform Judaism. Some 4 percent of the respondents said they felt themselves more comfortable with Chasidism, and about 2.5 percent of Jews said they believe Orthodoxy is closer to them.

The poll of 1,300 Jews was conducted by a group known as the Jewish Scientific Center, which is affiliated with the Russian Academy of Science. It has a margin of error of 3 percent.

Despite these numbers, most of Russia’s Reform synagogues have been unable to attract significant numbers of Jews — and none of them have ordained rabbis.

There are 15 Reform shuls in the former Soviet Union, seven of them in Russia, according to the World Union of Progressive Judaism.

“Non-Orthodox Judaism has not won wide recognition,” says Mikhail Chlenov, president of the Va’ad, the Russian Jewish federation.

“People see it as a kind of weakened version of Orthodox Judaism,” adding that Reform Judaism is not a part of Russian Jewish heritage.

Rashkovsky said American Jewry’s liberal denominations could do more to “help create a liberal Jewish identity in Russia.”

Despite the difficulties, the leader of Russia’s biggest Reform congregation, Moscow’s Hineini, is still optimistic.

“Contemporary Russian Judaism is just 10 years old,” said Zinovy Kogan, who also serves as executive director of the Congress of Jewish Religious Communities and Organizations of Russia, an umbrella group of Orthodox and Reform synagogues.

“Russia is going to have its own version of liberal Judaism,” which will have its teachers and rabbis.”

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