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Tales from the Pale if I Were a Rabbi: Jewish Women Struggle for Acceptance in Ukraine

August 13, 2004
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Julia Grisebshenko is facing a lot of nastiness in her quest to become Ukraine’s first female rabbi. First, there are the rumors that Grisebshenko, the leader of Odessa’s Reform congregation for the past four years, is not Jewish — which she is. Then there are the whispers that she’s an unwed mother — which she isn’t.

But the most damning “defect” of all is undeniably true: Grisebshenko, 28, is a woman, and that’s a serious hurdle to overcome in a country where Jews and non-Jews alike expect rabbis to be both Orthodox and male.

“It was a mistake to send a woman here,” said Kira Verkhovskaya, chairman of the board of Odessa’s Jewish Community Center, a tough, chain-smoking woman one might not expect to come out with such a comment.

“You hear that in every city in the former Soviet Union,” says Rabbi Nelly Shulman, who at 32 is chief rabbi of Russia’s Reform movement and one of three native-born Reform rabbis workin! g in the former Soviet Union.

Grisebshenko hopes to become the fourth. A graduate of the Reform movement’s Machon, a two-year “para-rabbinic” training institute in Moscow, she will be entering rabbinical college this August in Berlin.

“I think it was davka the right decision to send me to Odessa,” Grisebshenko says, using the word that loosely translates as “despite it all” in Hebrew.

“There are two ‘chief’ rabbis in this city, both fighting over who’s the real chief. Because I’m a woman, they don’t fight with me the same way. I work quietly, and I’ve been able to build up my congregation.”

Grisebshenko was born in Bryansk, a city on the Ukrainian-Russian border, to a mother who fought with the Jewish partisans’ brigade in World War II.

Her father’s parents, Jews from Poland and the Uzbek region of Bukhara, handed out matzah once a year at a family dinner, although the young Julia never understood why.

In 1989, as Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of opennes! s hit Bryansk full-force, a friend whispered to the 13-year-old girl t hat a Jewish Sunday school was being organized. Grisebshenko started going. By 15, she was teaching there; at 16, she was an activist and attending summer camp.

“The JCC director wrote a letter saying I was 18, since it was an adult camp,” she recalled.

“He was leaving for Israel, and he told me he wanted to make sure there would be good leaders to take his place.”

By 1995, when she was 19, Grisebshenko had become a regular at activities sponsored by Chabad-Lubavitch, the only Jewish religious organization in the city. She was already working for various other Jewish organizations, including the Jewish Agency for Israel and Betar, and was teaching Jewish history and traditions.

“The Chabad rabbi liked me, and said I’d go far,” she recalls. “I asked what he meant, and he said someday I’d be the wife of a rabbi.

“I told him, ‘No, that’s not enough for me.’ “

Three years later, Grisebshenko applied to Machon, then located in Kiev; it moved to Moscow in 200! 0.

“That first year in Machon was the happiest of my life,” she said. “I already had the basics in Hebrew and Judaism, so I could study more in-depth and explore deeper questions. Each day I studied, I understood that I’d made the right choice.”

After graduation, the Ukrainian Reform Association invited her to organize the fledgling Odessa congregation. She did so, and was soon eager to move on to rabbinical studies.

But the movement wanted her to wait.

“They said, it’s not enough to plant a seed, you have to make sure it grows,” she says.

So she waited. One year, two years, three years.

The congregation moved three times, finally landing in the cramped quarters it now rents for $510 a month, a hefty chunk of the $880 monthly allowance it receives from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and Reform headquarters in Kiev. That budget also includes Grisebshenko’s $200 monthly salary.

This year she finally received permission to leave for ! Berlin.

It won’t be an easy move. Her husband is “uncomfortable” w ith her decision, and hasn’t decided whether to accompany her.

Hardest of all, she has to leave her 18-month-old daughter behind, at least temporarily. She’s determined, however, to see it through.

“A rabbi is a teacher, and that’s what I want to do,” she says. “The young generation, my generation, is leading our parents back to Judaism. I’m very sure that my daughter will know even more than me, because she’s growing up with it. She was singing ‘Shabbat Shalom’ in the womb.”

This article is one in a series of pieces on Jewish life in the former Soviet Union. This series was made possible, in part, by support from the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, the Joseph and Harvey Meyerhoff Family Charitable Funds and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

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