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Around the Jewish World in New School Year, Reform Hopes to Strengthen Its Presence in FSU

September 18, 2006
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The Reform movement has been working in the former Soviet Union for 16 years, but it still lacks a central facility for its operations in the region and suffers from a shortage of rabbis, cantors and community workers. That may change, movement leaders say, with the introduction of a new, extended curriculum at the movement’s Russian training college and the group’s renewed commitment to purchasing a building in Moscow.

The plans were announced during a recent seminar of Reform congregation and youth group leaders and educators from Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, who spent four days last week near Moscow at the movement’s annual seminar.

The changes in the movement are long overdue, members said, expressing frustration over insufficient funding and management problems.

“I’m 10 years with the Reform movement, and there’s very little development going on,” said Dmitry Karpenko, 37, a cantor with the Moscow Reform congregation and one of the young, charismatic Reform leaders in Russia.

Previously focused on growing the number of its congregations in the former Soviet Union, the movement now is beginning to cut funding to some member communities to focus on quality instead of quantity, said Alex Kagan, the region’s director with the World Union for Progressive Judaism’s Israel office.

Quality also means more committed leadership and improved management. To this end, changes were recently introduced at Machon, a Moscow-based program that trains para-rabbis to work with progressive groups throughout the post-Soviet states.

The incoming class of 10 students who started their school year in early September will be the first in Machon’s 11-year history to study for three years instead of two. The additional year was added to allow students to spend more time working in the communities that after graduation will employ them as para-rabbis, cantors and educators.

“We want to stimulate people to stay with us and continue working in our communities,” said Rabbi Alexander Lyskovoy, a Moscow Reform leader and Machon’s director.

Dan Shvetz, 23, originally from Kirovograd, Ukraine, just started his second year at Machon, where he studies cantorial art. He expects to have no trouble finding a local community to work in when he graduates.

“There’s a need for people like us. I won’t be sitting around without a job,” he said.

“I have a list of 40 empty cities,” Lyskovoy said, referring to communities in the former Soviet Union with established Reform congregations but no rabbis or professional community workers.

“There’s enough room for our graduates in the communities. They can work as rabbis in everything except for issues of halachah,” or Jewish religious law, Lyskovoy said.

In addition to another year of classes added to the curriculum and a semester of study and practicum in Israel, beginning this year Machon will hold some of its classes at the Russian State University for the Humanities, allowing students to earn credits from the prestigious Moscow university.

The changes aim to make the Machon curriculum closer to that of Hebrew Union College, the Reform movement’s main school, which has campuses in the United States and Israel.

Reform leaders in the region say the changes are a first step in eventually making Machon a seminary — which the movement long has been considering — to train Russian-speaking rabbis, cantors and community workers.

“Machon can become a rabbinical college, but no sooner than in three to five years,” Lyskovoy said. “The idea of a rabbinical college is floating in the air, but it’s being put off because of financial and organizational difficulties.”

The financial matters Lyskovoy was referring to affect not only Machon: Some students believe it will be extremely challenging to live off the $300 monthly salary the movement pays graduates who go on to lead local congregations.

The Reform movement in the region is funded almost exclusively by donations from North American Jews, channeled through the World Union’s Jerusalem office.

The movement’s current budget in the FSU is about $1 million — a paltry sum compared to the $60 million budget of the Chabad-led Federation of Jewish Communities, the leading Jewish religious group in the post-Soviet countries.

Donations that Reform Jews raise locally account for no more than 5 percent of the budget, Kagan said. Last month, the central organization of Reform Jews in Russia, known as OROSIR, lost its lease for a space it has rented since 2002 and had to move from downtown Moscow to a Jewish community center in a remote district.

The development prompted the group to renew efforts to purchase a building in Moscow that will house a synagogue, community center, Machon and OROSIR offices.

“Without a base, we cannot talk about anything,” Lyskovoy said. “This is like hanging in the air. When you have a space you can find money to renovate it; when you don’t have a space you won’t find money to do anything.”

Kagan agreed, saying the World Union will focus its efforts on the property issue and hopes to resolve it within a year.

The group has a commitment for a $3 million donation from the Posner family of Pittsburgh, but will need to raise at least $2 million more to afford a property in central Moscow. The World Union currently is negotiating with potential donors, including a leading American Jewish businessman based in Moscow.

Meanwhile, the World Union has adopted a strategy focusing on property purchases in areas outside Moscow. With the exception of a few Ukrainian towns where Reform Jews received synagogue buildings that had been confiscated decades earlier by Soviet authorities, most of the 60 or so Reform congregations in post-Soviet countries have to lease space. Last month, the movement completed the purchase of a 5,000-square-foot building to house its St. Petersburg congregations, and it is trying to finalize the purchase of a building in the Belarussian capital of Minsk.

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