U.S. Reform Rabbis Discover Reform Judaism in E. Europe

The rabbi’s wife was suspicious.

Bruce Raff of Temple Judea in West Hills, Calif., claimed he was off to visit the Reform Jews of Central and Eastern Europe, but his wife wasn’t buying it.

“Where are you going to find these people?” she asked. “I mean, we never saw them.”

During a trip to Prague a few years ago, the couple visited the Jewish museum, toured synagogues and walked the streets of the Jewish quarter. But they never dreamed that Reform Jewish services were held in town, much less ones attended by natives.

Thus Raff and 23 of his Reform rabbinical colleagues, who mostly had the same impression as the Raffs, were a bit surprised when they arrived in the Czech capital several days ago for the World Union for Progressive Judaism’s first European trip for U.S. Reform leaders.

“I am not a stone, I am not a graveyard,” Sylvie Wittmann, head of Prague’s Beit Simcha, a Reform congregation of about 100 families, told the rabbis.

The 10-day trip, during which the U.S. rabbis studied, socialized and prayed with Reform congregations in Prague, Budapest and Warsaw, is part of a new collaborative effort by the movement’s Jewish leadership in the United States and Europe.

The U.S.-based Union for Reform Judaism and the World Union, the Israel-based Reform umbrella group, hope the collaboration will help Reform Judaism take deeper root in Europe, primarily by providing Reform synagogues — known here as Progressive — with greater funding and rabbinical support.

The World Union spends millions of dollars supporting Reform groups in Israel and the former Soviet Union, but only a few hundred thousand dollars on Europe.

“The major challenge is that Americans are not aware of these congregations because their rabbis are not aware,” Rabbi Uri Regev, president of the World Union, said this week at the conclusion of the trip. “The hope is that after our visit, the rabbis will lead scores of congregational trips.”

Part of the reason Reform Judaism has had such an uphill battling establishing itself in Europe, the original birthplace of Reform, is because Progressive institutions often find themselves outside the established communal structures that govern European Jewish life.

Though European Jews are largely secular, their official communal bodies, which are state recognized, are based on Orthodox traditions. The communities tend to view the postwar Reform movement as an unwelcome American import.

Recently, however, that has been changing.

Two years ago the Central Council of Jews in Germany, after much legal wrangling, accepted Reform congregations.

This month, the Czech Federation of Jewish Communities officially recognized Progressive Judaism as one of its streams. That means the part-time rabbi at Beit Simcha can be paid a state salary like other clergy in the country. The teachers at Beit Simcha’s Hebrew school, however, still work without salaries.

Europe has an estimated 60,000 Reform Jews associated with some 130 Progressive congregations. Reform Jews account for roughly 3.6 percent of Europe’s 1.6 million Jews outside the former Soviet Union.

By contrast, approximately 38 percent of America’s estimated 5.5 million or so Jews identify as Reform.

Trips like the one that ended in Warsaw on Monday aim at cementing ties between Reform Jews on either side of the Atlantic. More trips already are in the works.

Next March, Rabbi Lennard Thal, senior vice president of the Union for Reform Judaism, will lead his board of trustees on a trip to Warsaw, Budapest, Berlin and Krakow.

“One of the hopes we have is that the 40 lay leaders will return to ignite interest in this part of the world and more twinning arrangements will result,” Thal said in a telephone interview from New York.

Rabbi Irwin Zeplowitz of the Community Synagogue in Port Washington, N.Y, said his congregants are not keen to support cash-strapped Reform synagogues in the former Eastern bloc for philosophical reasons.

“Jews give to Israel first,” he said. “As for Europe, they ask, ‘Do I really want to give to a congregation in a place where so much death and suffering took place? Will their commitment be lasting?’”

Several of the rabbis who participated in this month’s trip lamented the fact that secular Jews in Europe often donate money to Chabad-Lubavitch, the global Orthodox outreach movement, rather than to local Reform congregations.

“They give to Chabad because they think it’s authentic,” Raff said. “They don’t know that Reform congregations exist.”

Part of the problem, noted Rabbi David Gelfand, head of the world Jewry committee of the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis, is that American Jewish federations organizing trips to Europe have “not been in a hurry to put Reform groups on their agenda.”

In Central and Eastern Europe, the federations visit the state-recognized communities that receive government and restitution funding, not Reform congregations that operate outside the organized system.

That has begun to change, albeit slowly.

“As we educate rabbis, when they look at federation itineraries they can say, ‘Can we visit a Reform congregation?’ ” Gelfand said.

On their recent trip, many of the rabbis were surprised by the intensity of Reform Jewish life here.

After visiting Beit Warszawa in Poland, Raff said, “There were far more people Friday night there — about 75 — than at the morning service at the Orthodox shul. You don’t see that a lot in the U.S.”

Rabbi Beth Singer of Seattle’s Temple Beth Am said she was most inspired by the only indigenous female Reform rabbi in Eastern Europe, Katya Kati Kelemann of Congregation Sim Shalom in Budapest.

“I realized how much she needs our support,” Singer said. “I mean, in Seattle there are five other female rabbis I can go to whenever I want.”

Kelemann is trying to raise funds to renovate a building given to the congregation last December by the Hungarian government. Sim Shalom thus far has raised only 10 percent of the necessary $250,000.

“I hope after this trip the World Union can help raise the rest,” Regev said.

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