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Across the Former Soviet Union Lack of Funding Seen As Reason Reform Judaism’s Not Bigger in Russia

July 14, 2005
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The Reform movement’s revolution in Russia hinges on money. That’s the message conveyed by many local participants during a recent meeting of the worldwide Reform movement in Moscow.

Some 400 Reform leaders, rabbis and educators from two dozen countries gathered in the Russian capital for the 32nd international biennial convention of the World Union for Progressive Judaism in a meeting touted as the largest gathering of Jewish leaders here since the 1917 Russian Revolution.

Although the World Union, with 1.5 million members, represents the largest organizational body of any Jewish stream worldwide, its presence in the former Soviet Union is still quite small compared with that of Chabad. There are just six Reform rabbis working in Ukraine, Russia and Belarus today, compared with Chabad’s several hundred. Just 70 Reform congregations receive financial assistance from the World Union, compared with more than 450 congregations affiliated with the Chabad-sponsored Federation of Jewish Communities of the Former Soviet Union.

It was precisely to show support for their movement in the former Soviet Union that the World Union chose Moscow as the site for its international conference this year, held June 30-July 5.

“For us, this is an indication of the trust and satisfaction in the growth of our movement here, a show of support and solidarity with our movement in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and the Baltics,” said Rabbi Uri Regev, the Jerusalem-based executive director of the World Union.

Reform leaders also noted that this summer marks 15 years since the establishment of Hineini, the first Reform congregation in the former Soviet Union, in Moscow.

“Even though we have been here for a relatively short period of time, studies of the Jewish community show a clear preference of Russian Jews for Reform Judaism over Chabad or other Orthodox Judaism,” Regev said, referring to a yet-unpublished study of Russian Jewry whose authors shared their findings with World Union leaders ahead of this month’s conference.

The survey was conducted by Vladimir Shapiro, a leading Russian Jewish sociologist. It showed that more than 20 percent of Jews in St. Petersburg view Reform Judaism as the most attractive branch of the religion, compared with the less than 10 percent who said they prefer Chabad and the less than 5 percent who opted for non-Chasidic Orthodoxy. The remaining respondents said they are not interested in Judaism as a religion.

“What makes Chabad stronger than us?” asked Georgiy Gonik, the lay leader for a 50-member Reform congregation in Krasnodar, a southern Russian city.

His assessment, which is echoed by many other Reform leaders in the former Soviet Union, is that it is mostly an issue of money.

According to the World Union’s 2004 annual report, the Reform body spent $1.6 million on activities in the region.

In contrast, Chabad spent more than $70 million from its central budget on the Federation of Jewish Communities, last year.

“In 15 years, we got only one computer for our Sunday school that we bought with help from a sister congregation in London,” Gonik said. “A Chabad rabbi arrived in town only last year and immediately bought 10 computers.”

The Reform movement in the former Soviet Union still lacks basic components, local participants said, from lay leaders committed to supporting congregations to Russian-language books on Judaism.

Unlike some other representatives of Reform congregations in the region, Gonik said that he did not come to the conference only to seek contacts with foreign synagogues and leaders who might provide some help to his cash-strapped community, although his congregation is far from well off.

The Krasnodar congregation receives $300 monthly from the Reform movement’s Moscow headquarters, which it supplements with $50 collected in membership fees.

“I’ve been with the movement for 12 years now, and we still need simple things such as books — from basic books on Judaism to more advanced religious publications,” he said, adding that the copies of two Russian-language Reform prayer books published by the movement are the “main valuables” in his congregation.

Rabbi Grigory Kotlyar, the Moscow-based head of the Reform movement in Russia, said the movement has a huge potential for attracting the majority of Russia’s non-affiliated Jews who come from mixed marriages and cannot find their place in an Orthodox environment.

“Unfortunately, our movement has not yet made any serious effort to attract these people,” he said during a panel discussion at the conference. “After 15 years, we are still at the very beginning of our activity.”

For example, Kotlyar said he runs the programs of the Moscow Reform Center out of a rented space that cannot accommodate more than 70 people. That space limitation, he said, is enough to restrict any further growth in his congregation.

Vladimir Torchinsky, who just helped set up a Progressive congregation in Khabarovsk, a remote community in the Russian Far East, said creating an attractive space for the congregation would allow it to bring in more people, especially the younger generation.

“If we get a space of our own, we could attract more youth, have a real synagogue,” said the 29-year-old graduate of Machon, the World Union’s Moscow institute for para-rabbinic leaders.

Regev said that by holding its convention in Russia, the World Union is sending a signal to its leadership that Reform congregations in the region require more support and attention.

During the conference, he announced two new movement initiatives designed to help congregations: an interfaith seminar to be held near Moscow that will bring together Jewish, Moslem and Russian Orthodox youths in a social-action project; and the impending completion of a Web-based Russian-language translation of the Plaut Modern Torah Commentary, the first modern liberal interpretation of the Pentateuch in Russian.

“Bringing international leaders here was intended to step up our activities in the region,” Regev said, noting that the World Union sponsors 60 youth clubs in the former Soviet Union, with more than 1,500 regular members.

“Help us have not 1,500, but 15,000,” he said during an emotional appeal to convention attendees. “They are out there.”

Said the outgoing president of the World Union, Ruth Cohen: “We definitely hope to encourage more financial support. A foreign congregation can become a sort of godfather, providing them with a synagogue building, prayer books, and so on.”

Rabbi Zinovy Kogan of the Hineini congregation said he is not counting that much on outside help but wants to focus on reaching out to those Jews who have not yet developed any serious interest in Judaism and Jewish life.

“Will the money start flowing from abroad after the conference? I’m not sure,” he said. “We have thousands of Jews who don’t go anywhere, neither to Chabad, nor to us. Our movement started here as a movement of independent-thinking intellectuals. I hope that when more people like that come to us, when they learn our way of life better, they themselves will start supporting the congregations.”

JTA correspondent Sue Fishkoff contributed to this report.

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