Reform Judaism appeals to Tuymen’s Jews

Kirill Drozdov, right, Dmitii Khaimovich, center, and Slava Tkachuk celebrate Shabbat in Tuymen. (Adam Ellick)

Kirill Drozdov, right, Dmitii Khaimovich, center, and Slava Tkachuk celebrate Shabbat in Tuymen. (Adam Ellick)

TUYMEN, Russia (JTA) — A Siberian Shabbat doesn’t get much cooler than this. Kirill Drozdov starts jamming on his electric keyboard. Vocal sidekick Slava Tkachuk feels the harsh beat by rhythmically tapping his Converse high tops. The 40 young spectators lock arms and begin swaying in a sea of Tommy Hilfiger knock-offs and retro-style nylon Adidas jackets that pop up in Brooklyn second-hand stores more often than in Siberian synagogues. “This is our version: ‘Lecha Dodi,’ rhythm and blues style,” shouts Drozdov, his ponytail flopping to the melody. Tuymen is Russia’s only flourishing Reform community outside of Moscow, and on this Saturday it rocks all day and into the night. Russia’s only restored Reform synagogue is a gorgeously remodeled structure where multiple organizations steer the Progressive wagon for the 2,500 Jews in Siberia’s oldest city. Youths learn Jewish history and traditions at a Sunday school sponsored by the Israeli Embassy. They study Hebrew in a classroom provided by the Jewish Agency for Israel. The dance team prepares for its second straight appearance at an international festival in Moscow. Middle-aged women fill the Jewish Cooking Club. Senior citizens revive their childhood memories at the Yiddish club, fix torn attire at the Sewing Club and receive medical treatment and food assistance at the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s Hesed center. “None of these organizations can afford to maintain this building alone, so we have to unite,” says Rafael Goldberg, the community chairman responsible for maintaining cohesion in Tuymen’s sole Jewish address. With an annual budget of slightly more than $1 million for the former Soviet Union, the World Union of Progressive Judaism doesn’t have the money to cultivate many communities like this. It’s a far cry from the Chabad-affiliated Federation of Jewish Communities’ budget for the former Soviet Union, which, at upward of $12 million, paves the way for the group’s dominance of religious life for Russian Jewry — which, ironically, is largely secular and assimilated. The WUPJ isn’t even registered with the Russian government and functions only as a subsidiary of the Orthodox Keroor movement. WUPJ officials say Russia’s chief Chabad rabbi, Berl Lazar, who is closely tied to the Kremlin, blocked non-Orthodox congregations from registering independently under Russian law, a charge the federation denies. Back in Tuymen, Roza Dmitrieva, 77, dubs herself “Head of the Rags” as the person responsible for sewing kipot and patching old clothes for needy congregants. She’s also a regular at the Yiddish club, where she is relearning all she forgot from her youth in Ukraine. “I feel spiritually full here, because I have the Soviet mentality that resents more traditional forms of Judaism,” she says of the Reform congregation. “Orthodox requirements are too hard an adjustment for me. I feel quite at ease over here. My soul and thoughts are at a higher level.” About a dozen youths gather downstairs for Sunday school, where today’s subject is Israel. The two most rambunctious kids belong to Sergiush Manzhiyevsky, a 42-year-old baptized Pole who insists on raising his kids Jewish. “I tell them this is a Jewish church,” he says. “But the church is too tough, and this place is fun and provides a basis for Torah. Judaism will become a habit for them. They will only learn good things here.” Alexei Sushkov, a contemplative 48-year-old, volunteers each Sunday to direct 15 youths through what will be Tuymen’s first Jewish theater production in 70 years: a satirical interpretation of the history of Purim. “It’s a great desire that for many years I couldn’t fulfill,” says Sushkov, before transforming into a drill sergeant drama coach. The establishment of Tuymen’s Progressive identity is rooted in luck, while its progress is fixed in ideology. Most Siberian Jewish leaders who founded grassroots communities in the late 1980s, during perestroika, willingly joined the Federation in the mid- to late-1990s because of its extensive resources. But Tuymen’s community took its own path in 1991, when its three student founders flipped a coin to determine its future. It landed on Reform. “The destruction of ideals during USSR times led to cynicism and strict pragmatism,” says Igor Varkin, the community’s spiritual leader. “People ceased to be interested in ideas and started focusing on financial possibilities. That’s why we can witness the triumph of Chabad in Russia. Most people don’t care about the ideology of religious organizations. There’s no selling of the soul. They know you cannot do much without money.” After the coin toss, leaders embarked on a mission of self-education through literature provided by the WUPJ. On several occasions, Goldberg says, the Federation attempted to woo them with financial offers. “When our friends tossed that coin it didn’t matter for them: Reform, Orthodox, Chabad — those were just words,” Goldberg says. “But eventually we had many discussions and decided we don’t want to divide halachic and non-halachic Jews and to rule like in ancient Rome. This must be a place for everyone. We are poor, but we are proud.” The injection of religious life came in 1999 when, after a few years of stagnation, the initial leaders made aliyah, leaving Varkin, a local in his late 20s, responsible for the remaining community. “The calendar said Pesach is coming, so I opened the book and found out what to do. But we didn’t have any real religions connections,” Varkin says. In 1999 he traveled 1,300 miles to Moscow to attend a WUPJ seminar that exposed him to a more professional community. “I told myself we have to have this,” says Varkin, slamming the table with his palm. He spent the next year in Moscow at the WUPJ’s Machon program, which offers a year of training in Jewish tradition, religion and Hebrew and then sends students to serve in remote communities for another year. The program, which boasts nine female students, appeals to non-religious Jews — but they often arrive in the remote locations where they’re to serve to find themselves paralyzed by a lack of funds. Varkin isn’t ordained and doesn’t pretend to offer rabbinical expertise — though his beard makes him seem more religious than most Reform rabbis in North America. His congregants are too immersed in activity to show even the slightest interest in his credentials. “Russian Jews are secular and cynical,” he says. “Don’t speak about God because it means nothing to them. Speak to people about people and they’ll come to your religious community. Now I don’t have enough time to conduct all the events. Time is too short.” Congregants pay a monthly membership fee equal to about 16 cents, a requirement virtually unheard of in Russia. Varkin hopes the symbolic gesture will encourage members to run a self-sufficient community one day. Tuymen is able to sustain itself because of its fortunate location in a region known as Russia’s Texas — it is three times the size of France and holds an oil surplus that represents a viable alternative to Middle Eastern oil. The main sponsor of the synagogue’s reconstruction was the Jewish vice-president of Tuymen Oil, and Siberian Oil supports various community programs. The WUPJ gives $3,000 a year to the Tuymen community, and another $5,000 comes each year courtesy of Congregation Beth Emeth in Wilmington, Del. The match was a product of the WUPJ’s twinning program, which pairs North American Reform communities with those in Russia. Varkin says Beth Emeth’s donation helps pay utilities, purchase kiddush cups for his five Bar Mitzvahs and buy five mezuzahs for the doorways of his active congregants. Seven more mezuzahs and seven more Bar Mitzvahs are expected next year. “If this assistance ceased, the question of turning to Chabad would arise again,” Varkin says. “We’re always on the alert.” Well, not always. On this day they’re fully immersed in jamming to “Lecha Dodi.”

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