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Conservative Jews think globally

PARIS, March 6 (JTA) — Germany has one Conservative rabbi, a determined woman named Bea Wyler.

She covers three cities 150 miles apart, serving nearly 500 congregants. She works full time but receives a part-time salary; she has no secretary, no teaching staff and no car.

For five years, she’s asked for support from the New York-based World Council of Conservative/Masorti Synagogues, whose member organizations and congregations promote the movement’s growth.

But no aid has yet come.

“In Germany we get the feeling that we are very left out,” she said.

Now the Conservative movement wants that to change.

Over the weekend, the World Council met in Paris — the first time it has ever held a conference in continental Europe — to discuss ways to help rabbis like Wyler.

Acknowledging that it has largely ignored the opportunity to expand the Conservative movement in Europe, the World Council vowed to make itself a major presence in the burgeoning communities scattered across the continent.

“Conservative Judaism didn’t initially see itself as a global movement,” said Rabbi Alan Silverstein, the World Council’s president. “Today it does.”

Approximately 200 Conservative Jews from such countries as France, Germany, Sweden, Hungary, the Czech Republic, England, Ukraine and Russia convened to voice problems and brainstorm for solutions.

Many said that it was the first opportunity they have had to address the Conservative leadership about the issues facing their communities.

Although many spoke of feeling neglected, the consensus seemed best expressed by a statement from Peter Gyori, program director of Bejt Praha in Prague: “There is enormous opportunity to build community in Europe. We need someone to make a commitment.”

But the current problems facing the Conservative movement are many and large:

• The Czech Republic has no rabbi who is willing to stay longer than a few weeks.

• In Russia and Ukraine, there are sizeable Jewish communities where not a single Jewish activity takes place.

• In England the Conservative movement might have more of a chance to grow if it did more marketing instead of being constantly drowned out by the aggressive publicity efforts of the Reform and Chabad movements, said a rabbi from London.

• Sweden has a problem of consistency: On some days, a dozen people show up for Jewish activities organized by the Conservative movement; on others, no one attends.

• In Hungary there is a liberal stream of Judaism called Neolog — yet the synagogues do not have the money to offer Shabbat dinner to young people who seem interested in their heritage, said Vilmos Frank, 25, of Budapest.

Despite the many difficulties that were discussed at the conference, several people spoke of achievements and tremendous promise for their communities.

Gyori said he took out a newspaper ad announcing High Holidays services last year, the first time such a thing has been done in Prague since the Holocaust. He expected 100 people to show up. Some 700 arrived.

In France the Conservative community opened its first synagogue last year.

Rabbi Rivon Krygier — a young, energetic, native French-speaker who was trained in Jerusalem and is the only Conservative rabbi in France — presides over the congregation of approximately 400 active families.

“There is a great need for more Conservative Judaism here, but it suffers from not enough awareness,” said Krygier, whose synagogue hosted the conference.

“In France no one has heard of the Conservative movement. We have had to do all the work ourselves to explain who we are.”

Had there been international backing, Krygier believes that “what took us nine years to build now could be done in only two or three.”

Rabbi Gordon Freeman, of the Conservative synagogue B’nai Shalom in Walnut Creek, Calif., said that such an organizational structure has been lacking because “in the past, the money was all directed to North America, since that’s where the movement was.

“We are just now beginning to get direction on a global scale. We have to create from the bottom up, with grass-roots organizations.”

Conservative organizational leaders explained that the ability to find funding for these Conservative communities will in part depend on how well they can be integrated into groups such as the World Council and Merkaz Olami, the World Masorti/Conservative Zionist Movement.

The European synagogues currently have little to no representation in these groups.

Pledging that “the organizational structure of our movement needs to change,” Silverstein, the council’s president, said he would like to establish an international steering committee, a Web site and publications in several languages to unify Conservative Jews in Europe.

Gyori, the program director in Prague, said he was leaving the conference feeling encouraged, but still unsure if he will ever get the full-time rabbi his community needs.

“They said ‘We’ll see what we can do.’ But we know it will take energy and money and personnel.”

One person attending the conference testified to the possibilities.

Rina Mihailova, a young woman from Moscow who had been active in the Jewish community for several years, converted to Judaism early Sunday morning.

She bathed in a Paris mikvah to mark her conversion.

Later that day, she told the group tearfully, “This is probably the happiest day of my life which I have been dreaming of for many years. I am so happy to share this day with you.”

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