Around the Jewish World: Rabbi’s Letter Highlights Growing Conflict Between Ukraine’s Orthodox and R
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Around the Jewish World: Rabbi’s Letter Highlights Growing Conflict Between Ukraine’s Orthodox and R

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Add Ukraine to the list of countries wracked by tensions among Judaism’s different streams.

A letter recently issued by the office of Ukraine’s top Orthodox rabbi is angering Reform Jewish leaders in the former Soviet republic — and in the United States. It is also spotlighting the strained relations between the Orthodox and Reform movements in some parts of the former Soviet Union.

The letter rejected in strong terms claims by Reform Jews in Ukraine to confiscated synagogues that have yet to be returned by the government.

A 1992 decree from the Ukrainian government provides for the restitution of properties belonging to religious communities seized during Soviet rule. But it does not address how to resolve competing claims over such property among members of the same faith.

The restitution process has been slow. Many local officials are reluctant to return such properties because of the difficulty in removing current occupants and because they fear being perceived as favoring Jews.

The letter signed by Rabbi Yaakov Bleich, chief rabbi of Kiev and Ukraine, states that the Reform movement, which was virtually non-existent in most of Ukraine until restrictions on religious freedom were lifted in the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, has no legal right to synagogues that originally belonged to Orthodox Jews.

The letter also sharply criticizes Reform Judaism for what the document calls an abandonment of Jewish law and the creation of “an undemanding religion.”

“It is understandable that Orthodox Jews perceive these innovations with pain, especially the Jews in the former Soviet Union who lived with the faith of their grandfathers,” the letter reads.

Referring to the experience of Israel, Russia and other Diaspora communities, the letter predicts that restitution of former Jewish religious property to Reform congregations in Ukraine “will result in undesirable conflicts” among Ukrainian Jewry.

According to Bleich, the letter was prepared by his office in May at the request of an Orthodox synagogue in Crimea, a region in southwestern Ukraine.

Bleich says the letter was intended to inform members of that congregation about his viewpoint as chief rabbi on the issue of Reform Judaism in Ukraine.

But Reform leaders argue that whatever the original reason for the letter, the document could discredit the Reform movement in the eyes of the Ukrainian authorities. They insist that the letter was actually a reaction to requests from several Reform congregations for the return of synagogues in Crimea and that it reflects Bleich’s fear of the growing popularity of the Reform movement in Ukraine.

Jewish leaders in Ukraine acknowledge that regardless of relations among Judaism’s streams, the restitution of Jewish property depends on local officials.

“If authorities are inclined to return a synagogue, they would return it. If they are looking for excuses not to, they could find an excuse” in this letter, said Josef Zissels, one of the most prominent Jewish lay leaders in Ukraine.

Anatoly Gendin, a Jewish leader in Crimea who made the letter public, said he believed the letter was intended for Crimean authorities and that in fact he received a copy of it from an official with the Crimean government.

He said that now that the authorities had a letter signed by the nation’s chief rabbi, they would be reluctant to give property back to Reform congregations.

Before the Jewish revival that has taken place in the former Soviet Union’s breadbasket since the collapse of communism, most of Ukraine was unfamiliar with Reform Judaism. Among the exceptions were Odessa, a Black Sea port that was a pioneer of the 19th-century Jewish Enlightenment in Russia, and portions of western Ukraine.

A majority of Ukraine’s largely assimilated Jewry remains indifferent to Judaism as a religion, but an increasing number of Jews — particularly younger Jews — has shown an interest in Reform Judaism in recent years. In Ukraine, the World Union for Progressive Judaism has created more than 20 congregations affiliated with the Progressive movement, as Reform Judaism is known in the former Soviet Union.

Most of Ukraine’s Reform congregations do not have buildings of their own and rent space to conduct their services and other activities.

Last month, a Reform congregation in the small resort town of Evpatoria in the Crimean Peninsula received a 100-year-old synagogue confiscated by the Communist authorities some 70 years ago. Reform congregations in the towns of Alushta and Kerch, both in Crimea, have also laid claims to synagogue buildings.

All of the synagogues in dispute were built by Orthodox communities before the 1917 Bolshevik revolution. None of these towns, however, has an active Orthodox group and Jewish life there is concentrated around their nascent Reform congregations.

Boris Kutik, president of the Kiev-based Association of Progressive Jewish Congregations in Ukraine, said that as a result of the letter, Ukrainian officials might look upon members of Reform synagogues as “illegitimate Jews.”

Meanwhile, a leading U.S. Reform rabbi called the letter by Bleich “outrageous and disturbing.”

Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, the executive director of the Association of Reform Zionists of America, said the situation replicates a pattern in which Orthodox rabbis present themselves as representing an entire Jewish community.

“We’ve seen it in Israel, other parts of the world, now we see it in the former Soviet Union.”

Bleich, a Karliner-Stoliner Chasid, is known as one of the most authoritative rabbis in the former Soviet Union. An American in his 30s, Bleich has been Ukraine’s chief rabbi since Ukraine became independent in 1991.

His long tenure and political skills have earned him respect both in the eyes of the country’s authorities and its 500,000-strong Jewish community.

He said he didn’t want to make Reform Jews look illegitimate and that he wrote the letter as a reminder that “under Ukrainian restitution law, Reform congregations have no rights to take back buildings that formerly belonged to the Orthodox movement.”

Kutik, who is a board member of Kiev’s Jewish umbrella organization, which is headed by Bleich, disagrees.

“These buildings once belonged to the Jews of Ukraine. Now they should belong to their children and grandchildren,” he said, adding that as Ukraine’s chief rabbi, Bleich “should be concerned about all trends of Judaism and not about which synagogue a Jew goes to pray.”

While the situation created by the Bleich letter is the first example of an open confrontation between Orthodox and Reform Jews in the former Soviet Union, their relations have never been smooth.

Two years ago, the Chabad movement in Russia objected to the inclusion of Progressive communities in a nationwide Russian Jewish umbrella group. Chabad subsequently created another umbrella organization that embraces only congregations employing rabbis affiliated with the Lubavitch movement.

In Ukraine, Orthodox and Reform leaders are often members of the same organizations. But at least one Reform activist believes the situation may change.

“As long as the Progressive movement is weak, the Orthodox leaders can reconcile with our existence. As we grow stronger, they begin to view us as rivals,” said Kutik.

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