Across the Former Soviet Union Conservative Movement Struggles to Stake out Its Claim in Ukraine

Yura Yurovnik, a Jewish high school student in Donetsk, Ukraine, attends a local Hebrew school run by the Conservative movement — though he admits he doesn’t know what distinguishes the Conservatives from Judaism’s other streams. Yurovnik isn’t alone in not understanding the notion of Conservative Judaism in the former Soviet Union. Unlike Chabad and Reform, which have made impressive strides in Ukraine and other parts of the former Soviet Union over the past 15 years, the Conservative movement’s footprint there is relatively modest.

And while the movement has been expanding its youth activities in Ukraine, it’s struggling to find a niche in a community whose Jewish population — estimated at 250,000-500,000 people — is overwhelmingly secular.

“It’s rather difficult to explain what Conservative Judaism means. For me, it’s Judaism that takes my opinion into consideration,” said Alina Shapovalova, 16, a student at School No. 41 in Chernovtsy.

Spreading its message in the former Soviet Union simply isn’t a priority for the Conservative movement. While numbers are hard to come by, the Conservatives spend far less in the region than Chabad — which spends some $60 million-$70 million there — or the Reform movement, which invests $1 million-$2 million.

Nearly all of the Conservative movement’s activities in the former Soviet Union are in Ukraine, and all are run out of Israel. Jerusalem’s Midreshet Yerushalaim, which is part of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, provides content and funding to movement activities in this part of the world.

Unlike the other streams, the Masorti movement, as the Conservatives are known in Israel, does not have a synagogue in Ukraine, opting to go with Jewish education instead.

“We decided to establish Jewish schools and centers, not congregations,” said Gila Katz, director of Midreshet Yerushalaim.

A native of Chernovtsy, a city in southwestern Ukraine that once had a thriving Jewish community, Katz now lives in Israel. She comes to Ukraine every summer to run camps and teacher-training seminars for Masorti schools.

Conservative leaders here believe the movement serves some 1,000 to 1,500 Jews in Ukraine. Facilities include a day school in Chernovtsy, eight Sunday schools and five Marom student groups across Ukraine. There also is the new Armon Educational and Cultural Center in Kiev, a Ramah summer camp outside of Kiev, another camp in the Kiev area for families, teacher-training seminars and some family educational programs.

The Marom youth group branches have become active only this year.

“We have five branches in Ukraine with about 40 members each,” said Udi Givon, director of Marom Olami, the movement’s worldwide youth organization.

Chernovtsy is home to the Conservative movement’s only Jewish day school in the former Soviet Union. When it opened in 1989, School No. 41 was one of the first Jewish day schools in the former Soviet Union.

Some 64 percent of the 306 students in grades 1-11 are Jewish “according to the Israeli Law of Return,” school official Lyudviga Tzurkan said, meaning they have at least one Jewish grandparent.

Regardless of their backgrounds, all of the students learn Hebrew, Jewish history and culture, and take classes in Jewish tradition and literature.

To many students and parents, it makes no difference that the school’s Jewish curriculum is provided by the Conservative movement: Most are happy just to be in the city’s only Jewish day school.

Natasha Tunis and her daughter, Nelly, believe School No. 41 is the best educational option in town.

“The school provides good education and free meals; that’s why I sent my daughter there,” said Tunis, 35.

Some Jews in Ukrainian communities may attend a Conservative day school, a Reform minyan and a Chabad study group — and see no contradiction.

“At our school, teachers just teach Jewish subjects and children are completely indifferent toward the differences between the Jewish branches,” said Polina Koreblyum, who is School No. 41′s librarian and leads the local Reform congregation.

Katz said the number of Jews is falling in Ukraine due to emigration and assimilation, and her organization was responding to this reality when it shut Sunday schools in Uzhgorod and Odessa.

Katz still believes the Conservative movement has a future in Ukraine if it channels more funds to the communities and can find or train rabbis willing to work there.

“The main problem for our movement is the absence of Conservative rabbis in Ukraine,” she said. “It’s time to have professional schools in the country.”

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