Reform Judaism grows in former Soviet Union


MOSCOW, Oct. 31 (JTA) — For Irina Yunyova, a new program to train Russian Jews to work in Reform congregations was a perfect fit.

“It has always been important to me and my family to keep our Jewish roots,” said Yunyova, 19, who comes from a Yiddish-speaking family in Birobidzhan.

“I’m especially happy that I can pursue my favorite occupation — teaching Jewish dance.”

The program, Machon, is part of a recent dedication of a new Reform center that will serve as the fulcrum of the Reform movement in Moscow.

The dedication highlights the inroads being made by liberal Judaism in the former Soviet Union. Just a few years after the Reform movement began to operate in the region, there are 100 Reform congregations and 10,000 community members, according to Rabbi Zinovy Kogan, one of the leaders of Progressive Judaism in Russia, as Reform Judaism is known here.

Reform Judaism was virtually unknown in the former Soviet Union before the fall of communism in 1991.

The curriculum of Machon, which trains social workers and community leaders to work in Reform congregations, includes courses in Jewish history and tradition, sociology and psychology, as well as Hebrew classes. Substantial stipends are provided for the 22 first-year students who started classes this fall.

“We dedicate this wonderful place as a house of study and as a house of community. It represents not just the one congregation but as well our belief in the future of the Jewish community in Russia and the FSU in general,” said Rabbi Richard Block, President of the World Union for Progressive Judaism in Jerusalem.

Progressive Judaism is making its presence throughout the former Soviet Union, particularly Russia and Ukraine. This fall a seminar on Jewish tradition organized near Moscow by the Progressive Judaism movement drew participants from 70 geographical points throughout the former Soviet Union.

The students in the Machon program come from regions throughout Russia, and soon a Torah will be installed in a congregation in the Siberian city of Murmansk.

Shortly after the dedication of a synagogue in Moscow, Block visited Kiev to install Alexander Dukhovny as the rabbi for the Religious Union for Progressive Congregations in Ukraine. Dukhovny will serve the 22 Progressive congregations scattered throughout Ukraine.

In some places, the increased activity of the Reform movement has put them at odds with the Lubavitch movement, which is the other Jewish religious organization active here. In Ukraine, the Lubavitch chief rabbi and the Reform movement are at odds over the Reform movement’s claim to Jewish communal property returned by the government.

But Albert Tyurin, 25, a math teacher from Yelets, a provincial town south of Moscow, appears to care little about these squabbles.

“I was brought up in a Jewish family, but knew literally nothing of Judaism and Jewish tradition. There was no Jewish community in the town. I could only dream of studying at such a place,” he said.

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