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Reform Judaism struggles in Siberian city

The synagogue in Omsk, Russia, that has switched from affiliation with the progressive movement to the Chabad-affiliated federation. (Ezra Nathan)

The synagogue in Omsk, Russia, that has switched from affiliation with the progressive movement to the Chabad-affiliated federation. (Ezra Nathan)

OMSK, Russia (JTA) — If the World Union for Progressive Judaism holds up the Siberian city of Tuymen as its model community in Russia, then the industrial metropolis of Omsk represents a failure for the Reform group. As the World Union’s flourishing Reform community outside of Moscow, Tuymen has a Hebrew school, Israeli dance classes, a Yiddish club and a beautifully remodeled Reform synagogue. For a while, it looked like Omsk could follow that model. The Reform movement came to Omsk in 1991 and established a foothold relatively early in the community with its charming 19th-century lime-green synagogue. Like elsewhere in the former Soviet Union, the World Union-affiliated synagogue attracted young, liberal-minded Jews, while the more religious elderly Jews attended more traditional services at the synagogue. The World Union said it sent Omsk’s Jews a Torah scroll, helped pay for the synagogue’s refurbishment and dispatched a graduate student to the city who had studied Judaism. “Our Progressive community coexisted peacefully and didn’t trouble anyone,” says Ya’akov Birljant, the veteran chairman of Omsk’s Jewish community. “Everyone got what they wanted. Youth learned about religion in their own environment. It was easy for them because they didn’t know anything about religion. And the older people who wanted more could study deeper.” But in 2000, with low program funding and even lower staff salaries, Birljant cut ties with the World Union and switched allegiances to the Federation of Jewish Communities, which is affiliated with the Chabad-Lubavitch movement. Some in the community were upset by that move. But in the three years since it was made, this dark industrial city has gotten a boost in services and even a new rabbi from Israel. The Chabad-affiliated federation says it has worked hard to accommodate community members’ religious preferences while providing for their religious needs. The federation runs activities in the city that “cover the gamut of Russian Jewish life that is comfortable for secular Russian Jews,” says Rabbi Avraham Berkowitz, the executive director of the federation. For its part, the city’s older generation has embraced the arrival of the rabbi the federation sent to Omsk, Osher Krichevsky. Birljant calls Krichevsky “a young, strong voice who represents spirituality in a very good way.” But the switch to the federation did not come without a cost, Birljant says. For one thing, Birljant says, the local Jewish community has forfeited control of the community’s finances to the federation. For another, Omsk’s non-halachic Jews — such as those with a Jewish father but a non-Jewish mother — say they don’t feel welcome at federation-run services. Now that the Reform synagogue has become Orthodox, they go to the Jewish Agency for Israel-run youth club for Jewish activities. The club is a hotspot for late-night conversation, computers, dancing and singing. On Friday nights, Reform services are held there. The youth club’s enthusiastic leader, red-headed Sasha Kimmelman, who says that most of the members of her Reform community are not halachically Jewish, wants to build the club’s ties with the World Union. She wants to register a new Reform congregation with the movement this year, but first she needs some financial promises from the World Union’s Moscow office. “We’ll be interested if a Progressive representative comes here, like a Reform rabbi who can teach people history and tradition,” she says. “But our last leader couldn’t answer our simple questions. It was a joke. If we get a leader with charisma and knowledge, I think something will change.” Mark Rykel, a World Union representative in the former Soviet Union, says the Reform movement is doing all it can in Omsk. “The WUPJ has supported the congregation in Omsk at the highest level we could for more than 10 years, and that support still exists,” Rykel said. But some young Reform activists say they have been disappointed by the World Union. Irina Shamis, a 20-year-old Reform Jew, says that because “people on the outside just think Siberian Jews are stupid,” they think they can send anyone to Omsk to lead the Jewish community. Even though the World Union says it still supports the Omsk Reform community, Shamis says the umbrella group doesn’t provide much. It doesn’t provide anything for Shabbat, she says. “We’ve asked for books many times but we don’t get anything. We’re trying to teach younger kids but we have no training material, no seminars. I worked at a Progressive camp and I had to rely on my own books, and it’s hard to learn something deeper from them.” Omsk’s youths say they also are disappointed by the federation’s lack of interest in Reform Judaism. “I can’t say they were interested in Progressive Judaism. They were just interested in Jewish tradition,” Kimmelman says.

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