Across the Former Soviet Union Jewish Group Comes out Swinging After Reform Lesbian Union in Russia

Russia’s leading Jewish organization has called on the community to boycott Reform Jews after a Reform rabbi officiated at what is believed to be the country’s first same-sex commitment ceremony. “We are calling on Jewish organizations and communities of Russia to relinquish any religious contacts with the people who have committed this sacrilegious and provocative act, as well as with the organizations these people represent,” said a statement released Thursday by the Chabad-led Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia, the largest Jewish group in the country.

The federation said it expects Russian Jews to support its stand.

“Silence in this situation will be regarded by the society and posterity as a sign of consent,” the group said.

It remains unclear whether the boycott call will have any practical effect in the former Soviet Union, where official contacts between Lubavitch and Reform Jewish activists are almost nonexistent.

But the tiny private ceremony for a Jewish lesbian couple in Moscow could trigger a wider public debate within the Jewish community about gays and lesbians — and homophobia — in Russia.

According to a recent poll, 37 percent of Russians believe gays and lesbians should be criminally prosecuted. Russian Jews are believed to have similar attitudes.

The ceremony took place in Moscow on April 2, but came to light only after it was mentioned Wednesday in a Moscow daily newspaper. Rabbi Nelly Shulman, who officiated, said it was not a Jewish wedding but a dedication ceremony.

Shulman insisted that she conducted the ceremony privately and without backing from her group, OROSIR, the umbrella organization of Reform Judaism in Russia. Alexander Lyskovoi, the group’s leading rabbi, confirmed that the group had not endorsed the ceremony.

Shulman said the federation’s boycott call was unreasonable.

“This was my own initiative, and only I myself carry full responsibility for it,” she said. If the federation “wants to boycott me, I’m fine with it.”

Hostility and bias toward gays and lesbians remain widespread in the former Soviet Union, where homosexuality was decriminalized only with the fall of Communism.

In early May, a group of people identifying themselves as members of the Russian Orthodox Church disrupted a party at a Moscow gay club, shouting homophobic slogans and obscenities and throwing eggs at the doors.

Most recently, there was a heated public debate over a proposed gay pride festival and parade. Leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church and the Muslim and Jewish communities spoke out strongly against the festival.

Talgat Tajuddin, one of Russia’s chief muftis, said the Muslim prophet Mohammed had ordered the killing of homosexuals. Tajuddin predicted that if the event takes place, the protests of Russian Muslims would be “even sharper than those abroad against scandalous cartoons.”

Federation leader Rabbi Berel Lazar, one of Russia’s two chief rabbis, also condemned the proposed festival, telling the Interfax agency in February that the event “would be a blow to morality.”

The city government decided Thursday to ban the event.

The lesbian commitment ceremony already has had repercussions for Russia’s Reform movement: In late April, Zinovy Kogan resigned as chairman of the Reform umbrella group to protest the ceremony.

A source familiar with the situation told JTA that though the Reform movement in the United States generally permits same-sex unions, Shulman is the only one of six Reform rabbis working in the former Soviet republics who supports such ceremonies.

The six rabbis likely will take up the issue when they meet in Moscow on May 29. It’s possible that the movement will ban such ceremonies in Russian Jewish communities, the source said.

“We are living in a society that has not matured enough for such ceremonies,” Shulman acknowledged.

Galina Zelenina, who asked Shulman to conduct the ceremony for her and her partner, told JTA she didn’t mean to provoke anyone.

“Judaism allows for a certain interpretation,” said Zelenina, 28, a poet who has a degree in Jewish studies from a Moscow university.

“We didn’t make it a media event,” Zelenina said. “But we didn’t want to make it underground either.”

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