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Reform Jewish Leaders Find Potential for Growth in Russia

June 29, 1998
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American Reform Jewish leaders are optimistic about the potential for their movement’s growth in the former Soviet Union.

A delegation of Reform leaders found, in visits last month to Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, that the number of congregations is growing steadily — and that there is an urgent need for trained rabbis.

“There are some students from these countries at the Leo Baeck College in London and Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem,” said Jerry Tanenbaum, chairman of the North American Board of the World Union for Progressive Judaism. “They are coming back here soon to help establish a number of congregations.”

There are more than 50 Progressive congregations — as the Reform movement is known here — in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Estonia. In Russia alone, a dozen new Progressive congregations were registered in the past year.

Few of them have synagogue buildings or Torah scrolls. And only one — the Hatikva congregation in Kiev — enjoys the leadership of a full-time rabbi, David Wilfond, an American sent here last year by the WUPJ.

The 37 representatives of the WUPJ, Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the National Federation of Temple Brotherhoods and Women of Reform Judaism attended a graduation ceremony at the Institute for Modern Jewish Studies in Kiev.

The institute, opened two years ago under the auspices of the WUPJ, is training young Jews from Ukraine’s Reform congregations in the basics of Hebrew literacy and Jewish ritual.

The first group of 11 young men and women is now expected to return to their hometowns to share their newly gained knowledge.

Tanenbaum said the Reform movement is appealing in the former Soviet Union because many Jews are looking for pluralistic alternatives to the traditionally Orthodox congregations

According to a recent poll, 22 percent of Russian Jews say they felt closest to Reform Judaism. Some 4 percent said they felt more comfortable with Chasidism and about 2.5 percent favored Orthodoxy.

Many of those who are interested in Reform Judaism “are not halachically Jewish,” said Tanenbaum, referring to the many Russian Jews whose mothers are not Jewish and who, therefore, are not considered to be Jews according to traditional Jewish law.

A large percentage of Jews in Russia is married to non-Jews, said Tanenbaum, but, so far, the Reform movement has performed virtually no conversions in the former Soviet states.

“We don’t want to make `quickie’ conversions,” said Tanenbaum, referring to a term used recently by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who criticized the Reform movement’s efforts to gain recognition for conversions their rabbis perform in Israel.

However, in coming years, Reform congregations here might get involved in preparing those non-Jews who want to convert, he said.

When the Russian Parliament passed a new religion law last September, some Jewish and human rights activists in the United States expressed concern that the law, which restricts religious freedom, could create problems for Reform Judaism here.

The law imposed a variety of restrictions on faiths that have not been active in Russia for at least 15 years. Judaism was recognized by the law as one of Russia’s four “traditional” faiths that can enjoy full rights, but it was unclear how the law would be applied to Reform Judaism, which began in Russia only after the collapse of Communism.

“We had no indication from any person on the ground” that this law has created any problems for Reform communities in Russia, said Tanenbaum.

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