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Across the Former Soviet Union Reform and Chabad Need Rabbis Where Communism Once Reigned

August 19, 2005
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Despite their ideological differences, the Reform and Chabad movements in the former Soviet Union share a shortage of buildings and spiritual leaders to serve their growing communities. “We have 12,000 Jews affiliated with us in Ukraine, but what we do not have in Kiev is a physical presence,” says Rabbi Alexander Dukhovny, a Reform movement rabbi in Ukraine. “And we will be marginal until we have that.”

While the presence of the fervently Orthodox group Chabad in the region is much larger than that of the Reform movement, both groups see synagogues and rabbis as ways to anchor their newfound communal strength.

Rabbis and buildings are seen in the former Soviet Union by Jews, non-Jews and government officials as demonstrable proof of solidity, bestowing gravity on and garnering respect for the Jewish community just as priests and cathedrals do for the Russian Orthodox Church.

There are more tangible benefits as well, say local Jews. Donors are more eager to give to a congregation headed by a rabbi, local Jews are more attracted to their services, and the perception of substantiality helps in the battle to recover historic Jewish property confiscated by the former Soviet state.

Chabad and Reform are the only two Jewish streams of consequence in the former Soviet Union — there are no Conservative rabbis, and there are one part-time modern Orthodox rabbi in Kharkov, Ukraine, and a number of other Chasidic and non-Chasidic fervently Orthodox rabbis.

But when it comes to synagogues and rabbis, the competition between the two movements could not be more unequal.

The World Union for Progressive Judaism, the international body of Reform Judaism, budgeted $1.6 million for its activities in the former Soviet Union last year. There are six Reform rabbis serving 67 Reform congregations across the region, according to movement officials. The Reform movement owns seven synagogue buildings, none of them in major cities.

In contrast, Chabad spent $70 million on its activities in the region and has 188 congregations, 221 rabbis, and 243 separate Jewish communities affiliated with the Chabad-controlled Federation of Jewish Communities of the Former Soviet Union and Baltic States, according to the federation’s executive director, Avraham Berkowitz.

Chabad owns close to 200 synagogue buildings, including large historic synagogues returned by the government in St. Petersburg, Kiev and Minsk, and a spanking new multimillion-dollar Jewish Community Center in Moscow. And Chabad has announced plans to build another new center in Kiev.

Despite the unequal balance, both movements say their infrastructure isn’t growing fast enough to meet congregational needs.

“There’s clear consensus that we need 18 to 20 rabbis, not the six we now have, because we have that number of cities with Jewish populations that warrant it,” says Rabbi Joel Oseran, the Jerusalem-based associate director of the World Union.

Both movements are focusing efforts on training more native-born rabbis, who speak the language and who understand the local mentality.

“It’s very hard to convince a foreign couple to move to a small Russian community,” says Rabbi Berel Lazar, Chabad’s Moscow-based chief rabbi.

Through the 1990s, Chabad emissaries arriving from Brooklyn or Jerusalem had their pick of the choice cities. But now that the movement has expanded so greatly, most new jobs are in small, isolated cities far from Moscow or Kiev — much less of a draw for foreigners, although some pioneers continue to make the move.

Lazar, who was born in Italy and studied in an American yeshiva as a teenager, says that Jews in the former Soviet Union have outgrown their fascination with all things foreign.

“The mentality in Russia has changed,” he says. “They want to understand much deeper, not just come to synagogue to sing and dance. It’s impossible to do that without understanding the Russian mentality. I’ve been here 15 years, and I still don’t get every small thing.”

Three years ago, Chabad opened a kolel, or rabbinic training center, for Russian speakers in Moscow. Eight rabbis have already been ordained, six more are slated to be ordained next year, and the numbers are expected to grow, according to its director, Rabbi Yosi Marzel.

In contrast, the World Union has four rabbinic students from the former Soviet Union, all studying abroad in London or Berlin. Plans to open a Reform rabbinic seminary in Moscow have not yet materialized.

“We can’t create a new institution in Moscow right now,” says Oseran. “In the long run I hope it will happen, but for now we will seriously have to figure out how to get those 18 to 20 rabbis we need using existing institutions.”

Due to funding difficulties, no new students from the former Soviet Union will be admitted to London’s Leo Baeck College this fall, says Rabbi Jonathan Magonet, the college’s outgoing principal.

The Women of Reform Judaism, a U.S.-based arm of the World Union, sends the college $4,000 per student per year, and the rest of the $25,000 annual tab has until now been picked up by individual British donors. But the donors are tired of footing the entire bill, Magonet says.

“It’s been a very generous initiative on their part, and the world community hasn’t responded as well,” he says.

In fact, no new students from the former Soviet Union will begin Reform rabbinic training anywhere in the world this fall, movement officials say.

And while Chabad continues to send new rabbis to cities far from the major population centers, Oseran says the World Union has pulled back from the more aggressive expansion it favored a decade ago. It is now focusing its efforts on strengthening its congregations in the major cities.

“We’re not pushing the way we did five or 10 years ago,” he says. “We’re not looking to open up in little villages.”

For what Oseran calls the “periphery,” the World Union is depending on graduates of its two-year Machon program in Moscow, which trains young para-rabbinic lay leaders for Russian-speaking congregations in smaller cities. It is also depends on a new “rabbinic infusion” program out of the movement’s seminary in Jerusalem, which sends nine Russian-speaking rabbis and rabbinic students to Reform congregations in the former Soviet Union every six weeks and for the major holidays.

But that’s not enough, Reform movement leaders acknowledge. They recognize that their funding limitations don’t fully support their hopes for the region.

Oseran describes the Reform communities of Belarus and Ukraine as “stable” and “manageable.”

But Russia, with 24 Reform congregations sprawled across 11 time zones, “is unmanageable, especially with just two rabbis,” he says. “There’s no way we can get out in the field like we want to.”

The president of the World Union, Rabbi Uri Regev, says funding priorities for the former Soviet Union have been redirected toward a greater focus on youth activities. In the past three years the movement has created a network of 60 youth clubs, with more than 1,500 members, 900 of whom attend Reform summer camps.

The Machon program is also being “tightened up,” he says, with stricter admission criteria and larger stipends offered to students and graduates to encourage them to continue working for the movement in the region.

“Given that we don’t have 250 rabbis, we can do a lot more in helping our communities help themselves, by providing more intensive training for lay leaders and providing more ongoing mentoring and support,” Regev says.

“We need to focus our limited resources on that which works.”

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