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Jewish Reps in Former Soviet Union Look for Help from Western ‘relatives’

July 14, 2005
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When the tour buses filled with Reform Jewish leaders pulled up at the Mendelyeva seminar center on Moscow’s outskirts, Simon Kleiner of Gomel, Belarus, was waiting to greet them. “Hello, relatives,” he called out cheerfully, as the foreign visitors looked back, mildly bemused.

It was the second day of the World Union for Progressive Judaism’s international biennial in Moscow — the only chance for representatives of Reform communities in the former Soviet Union to make direct contact with their American and other foreign counterparts.

Many of the locals were looking for Western congregations that would agree to “twin,” a formal relationship brokered by the World Union that involves a financial commitment of approximately $5,000 a year from the foreign partner, as well as a promise to maintain regular contact.

Having a sister congregation provides a window to the outside world, Kleiner explained.

That’s particularly meaningful for isolated Jewish communities like his own in the middle of Belarus, a country that does not get as many Jewish visitors as neighboring Ukraine or Russia.

“We had a rabbi come through about six years ago, and two months ago two ladies from our twin in London,” he said. “They’re not a wealthy congregation, so they can’t send us money. But they do send medicines and vitamins.”

Those are important commodities in Gomel, an industrial city that gained attention after the 1986 Chernobyl explosion as the first place where the radiation cloud drifted. Many local children have since fallen ill with thyroid cancer, which the World Health Organization believes is due to Chernobyl fallout.

Kleiner, a lieutenant in the Soviet Army at the time, was called in to do cleanup work at the reactor core a few weeks after the accident. He is still tested yearly for radiation effects, as are most of the other residents of Gomel.

“I don’t think Chernobyl improved my health, but we don’t have Simon without radiation to compare,” he said.

Today there are about 2,000 Jews in Gomel. Fifty of them are members of the Reform congregation, with 20 more candidates. Kleiner explains that the room in which they hold services is too small to fit more than 50 people, “but if someone calls to say they can’t come to Shabbat services, a candidate can take his place that week.”

So he’d like to rustle up a second foreign twin congregation that might help his congregation rent a larger space for services.

He was chosen to attend this convention because he speaks English, he says.

Just then, Kleiner was buttonholed by an elderly gentleman wearing a jacket festooned with military medals. It was Isaac Wolfson, the representative from the Reform congregation in Bobruisk, Belarus, who wanted Kleiner to help him communicate with Len and Susan Sklerov, of New City, N.Y.

“I’d like to try to open relations with you, to tell you of our experiences and families,” Kleiner translated Wolfson’s words to the Sklerovs.

“What kind of relations do you want?” Len Sklerov asked, explaining that their hometown congregation is already “twinned” with the Reform congregation in Kiev, where his father was born.

“My father was also born in Kiev,” Kleiner interjected.

“It’s possible we’re all mishpochah,” Sklerov replied, using the Yiddush word for family.

“Not possible — it’s sure,” Kleiner insisted.

Wolfson says Bobruisk was a Jewish cultural center before World War II, but it now has fewer than 2,000 Jews out of a population of a quarter-million. He says the government of Belarus is trying to encourage Jews to return to the city, but he doesn’t think there’s much hope of that.

Later, the Sklerovs say they gave their e-mail address to Wolfson, and they will talk to their congregation in New York about the possibility of establishing a second twin. “We have a couple of members from Belarus; it might work out,” Len Sklerov says.

Meanwhile, outside on the front lawn the representative from the Reform congregation in Cherkassy, Ukraine, is engaged in serious conversation with Mel and Nena Chudnof from West Bloomfield, Mich., a heavily Jewish suburb of Detroit.

Mel Chudnof is studiously compiling a list of items the Cherkassy representative says her congregation needs, as well as specific programs she’d like funded. He hopes to drum up interest among several Reform congregations in the greater Detroit area and perhaps send a delegation to Ukraine in the near future.

“Detroit was very active in supporting Soviet Jewry in the ’70s,” he notes, adding that he’s trying to figure out how to generate that same interest in helping the growing Jewish communities of the former Soviet Union today.

It’s a harder sell, convention delegates admit. Now that the Cold War is over and the Soviet government has collapsed, the lack of crisis mode makes it very hard to raise funds for post-Soviet Jewry.

“There are so many priorities that congregations face, it’s sometimes difficult for them,” says Len Sklerov, explaining how his own congregation in New City deliberated over the financial drain of twinning with a congregation in the former Soviet Union. “If it’s a choice between educating their own children or supporting Kiev, they just can’t make the stretch.”

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