MOSCOW (JTA) – When the World Union for Progressive Judaism asked Leonid Bimbat, then in his final year at Leo Baeck College in London, to return to his native Russia as a rabbi, his considerable excitement was tempered by a sense of trepidation.
“I have a metaphor for the Progressive movement in Russia,” he told JTA. “It’s like going up on a down escalator. For every two steps you stay in the same place, and if you stand still you go down.”
The motivation that drove Bimbat to move from his native Yekaterinburg in central Russia to Moscow, as well as the unease about the likelihood of success, appeared prominently here during the recent annual WUPJ Conference for the Former Soviet Union.
The WUPJ’s message was clear – we’re not Chabad and we’re proud of it – and attendees brought considerable enthusiasm to the four-day conference held earlier this month.
But the prevailing attitude of the gathering, which featured lectures on such topics as Jewish demography and trends in contemporary Judaism, was optimism tempered by despair about just how to channel it.
The corridors of the conference – held in a Soviet-era student’s dormitory – were buzzing with dozens of participants from Russia, Belarus and Ukraine. Many, numerous jokes to the contrary, were of college age and younger.
Part Limmud and part pep rally, the conference was designed primarily to unite Progressives and raise their spirits.
“I think it’s a good idea to bring everyone together at least once a year,” said Bimbat, “so they can see we’re a big movement.”
Progressives are spread across the vast regions of the FSU, living amid the myriad Jewish organizations competing for their membership.
OROSIR, the union’s Russian branch, trails several Jewish organizations in the former Soviet Union in membership and influence. They include the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia, the CIS – a Chabad umbrella organization – and the Orthodox Congress of Jewish Religious Communities and Organizations of Russia, or KEROOR.
Its 17 communities lag far behind the nearly 200 run by the politically connected federation, whose chief rabbi, Berel Lazar, has close ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
But this year saw the purchase of a new Progressive synagogue in St. Petersburg, the first one since the collapse of communism 17 years ago.
The conference also featured a discussion on property acquisitions in Kiev and Minsk. But talk of a Moscow Progressive synagogue, which is seen as vital in establishing a visual presence in the Russian capital, was conspicuously absent.
Perhaps that was due to a general acknowledgment that the St. Petersburg shul was something of an anomaly, resulting more from the time spent by the recently departed Rabbi Michael Farbman working at the West London synagogue that donated most of the money than any larger strategy.
Why the movement is experiencing such woes was an underlying theme of the conference, which was held in the suburb of Zelenograd, just outside Moscow.
The common view, as presented by Yakov Basin, an OROSIR representative in Belarus, is that Progressives are losing the war of information against the better-funded Orthodox movements.
“The major task for Reformist Jews is to attract assimilated Jews,” he said, “because unassimilated Jews don’t need to be attracted.”
Thus the plan offered at the conference was to focus on the larger cities – Moscow, St. Petersburg, Kiev and Minsk, for now – building large synagogues and community centers to provide a model that will bring in more Jews who may be unfamiliar with the movement.
“This is our goal: to buy buildings, to make a big community and people should see some kind of example as a model,” said the movement’s chief rabbi of Russia, Alexander Lyskovoi. “We don’t have models even, we have small communities.”
Just how the WUPJ, whose yearly FSU operations budget is $2.5 million, will be able to accomplish these lofty goals seems to be more a matter of faith than any guiding operational principle. After all, $2.5 million wouldn’t pay off even half the cost of buying a synagogue in Moscow’s meteorically expensive real estate market.
Lyskovoi spoke to JTA of the difficulty in raising funds from local donors and the increasing emphasis on foreign investment like the partnership that led to the St. Petersburg shul.
He placed the onus for fund raising with the WUPJ leadership, which presented a positive funding picture. Todd Warnick, its chief financial officer, told JTA that the group’s operational budget for the FSU has more than doubled in the past four years. Still, the group is realistic in addressing the difficulties it faces here.
Warnick says the product ultimately is the key to surmounting the differences between WUPJ and Chabad with its vastly superior funds.
“Look, we’re never going to be able to compete with Chabad in fund raising,” he said. “Where we can compete with Chabad is in the realm of ideas and ideology.”
(Moscow correspondent Igor Serebryany contributed to this report.)