Ukraine’s Reform rabbi keeps the faith

Rabbi Alexander Dukhovny, third from left, watches kindergartners perform a concert at Tikva School in Kiev, Ukraine, on May 30. (Daniel MacIsaac)

Rabbi Alexander Dukhovny, third from left, watches kindergartners perform a concert at Tikva School in Kiev, Ukraine, on May 30. (Daniel MacIsaac)

KIEV, Ukraine, June 15 (JTA) — Rabbi Alexander Dukhovny is the embodiment of the Reform Jewish movement in Ukraine. That’s only natural: Dukhovny is the only Reform rabbi in the whole country and Ukraine’s lone native-born rabbi. Willing to work to make a name for himself and the movement he represents, the 53-year-old is trying to articulate a modern approach for modern times that sets him apart from the religious Jewish establishment in post-Soviet Ukraine. “If someone was to tell you that Judaism is only about tradition, don’t believe them, because the best way to preserve tradition is to develop,” he said. “Judaism is not only a religion but a way of life.” Energetic, clean-shaven and with intense blue eyes and a penchant for brightly colored clothing, the rabbi has a youthful air about him. He needs it, given the challenges he faces in establishing a foothold for Reform, or Progressive, Judaism here. Most of Ukraine’s Jews — estimates of the community range from 250,000 to 500,000 — are not religious or are being introduced to religion for the first time. Yet many of them attend Orthodox, rather than Reform, services because of a strong Orthodox presence in the country. Many Orthodox synagogues offer free meals or medical care, providing an added attraction for individuals to attend Orthodox services. Reform Judaism actually has its roots in Western Ukraine, when, as part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the early 19th century, it absorbed the spirit of the Jewish Enlightenment. But Ukraine also is close to the origins of Chasidic movements like Chabad-Lubavitch, which have come to dominate religious Jewish life in Ukraine. Many Jewish communities in the country are spearheaded by Chabad emissaries who come from abroad to work in communities here and spread Chabad-style observance of Judaism. Dukhovny spends most of his time in Kiev, where he presides over the Religious Union for Progressive Jewish Congregations in Ukraine. The movement claims 47 congregations and a membership of some 14,000 Jews. There currently are eight Reform rabbinical assistants working in the country and four Ukrainians studying abroad to become Reform rabbis. But with Orthodox rabbis reclaiming synagogues, starting schools and running social welfare programs, the Orthodox movement has secured the lion’s share of international funding for Jewish causes in Ukraine — including donations of American Reform Jews distributed through agencies like the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. “Who else are they going to give it to?” said Anna Azari, Israel’s ambassador to Ukraine and the wife of a Reform rabbi in Tel Aviv. “There is a lot of money coming from within liberal Jewish circles, but there is also usually some pretty objective criteria involved in how that money is allocated.” A 2001 study by Chicago-based consultant Betsy Gidwitz outlined some of the difficulties Dukhovny faces. “Operating with minimal funding and no communal facilities, Rabbi Dukhovny has yet to develop the educational, cultural and welfare programs that would earn him and his movement the credibility accorded to his Orthodox counterparts and their operations in Ukraine,” said the study, titled “Jewish Life in Ukraine at the Dawn of the 21st Century.” “The Chabad movement can provide a lot of presents and material help,” said Alona Lisitsa, a Kiev-born Israeli studying to be a Reform rabbi at the Jerusalem campus of Hebrew Union College. “Sometimes I think the Reform movement isn’t doing something similar not because we can’t do it, but because we don’t think it’s moral to bring people to our movement by ‘buying’ them. You can’t take a person and provide for them materially all their lives, but you can provide for them spiritually.” The Jews who turn up at the Reform movement’s small-yet-modern Tikva Center in downtown Kiev represent a cross section of the community. About 50 people came one recent Friday night to Shabbat services, ranging from the elderly to university students to schoolchildren. “Some older Jews go to more traditional, Orthodox services in part because they need the charity,” said one attendee, Naum Urisman. “But I prefer the atmosphere we have here.” One thing Dukhovny doesn’t seem to lack is faith in himself and his ability to move Ukrainian Judaism in a new direction. The grandson of a Chasidic rabbi, Dukhovny grew up in a Kiev family that kept its Jewish faith and tradition alive in the face of Communist repression. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Dukhovny says he had no interest in joining the newly emerging Jewish leadership in the country. It took a trip to The Hague and an encounter with a Reform rabbi in the early 1990s for Dukhovny to realize that he could become a rabbi and help facilitate the rebirth of Judaism in Ukraine while remaining true to his own beliefs in progress. “I didn’t want to be some kind of ultra-Orthodox, Brezhnev-style leader,” he said. “But when I discovered I could be who I am and a rabbi, I embraced Judaism and modernity.”

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