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Tales from the Pale U.S. Temple Gives Torah, Laptop to Sister Congregation in Ukraine

August 13, 2004
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Temple Emanu-El, a large Reform congregation in San Jose, Calif., had a few extra Torahs. The tiny, financially struggling Reform congregation in Odessa, Ukraine, had none. So in late April, three members of Emanu-El took one of their Torahs, which had been restored by a scribe in Los Angeles, and put it on a plane to Europe.

They drove it around Austria and Germany in the back of a rental car — including a trip to Mauthausen — and brought it to Odessa, Ukraine, where on April 30 it was presented to the local Reform congregation in an emotional Kabbalat Shabbat ceremony marking the twinning of the two communities.

“We had three Torahs that weren’t kosher,” said Jonathan Hirshon, a San Jose marketing consultant who spearheaded the twinning project. “We had the best of the three repaired, and decided to donate it to Odessa.”

As befitting a gift from a temple in California’s Silicon Valley, congregation officials also ! donated some high-tech equipment to the Ukrainian Jews.

Hirshon says Emanu-El chose Odessa because the city has about 1 million residents, roughly the same as San Jose. Also, many Emanu-El congregants have family ties to the Black Sea resort.

In fact, Emanu-El Rabbi Dana Magat, who along with ritual committee co-chairwoman Dawn Chaffin accompanied Hirshon to Odessa, found out just a month before their trip that his own ancestors were from Odessa.

“Many American Jews have their roots in Ukraine, and this is a way to give back to those roots,” said Kiev’s Rabbi Alex Dukhovny, chief rabbi of the Ukrainian Reform movement.

Dukhovny noted that, including Odessa, nine of Ukraine’s 30 Reform congregations now have their own Torah scrolls.

In Russia, six of the 31 existing Reform congregations have Torahs, according to the leader of the Reform movement in Russia, Rabbi Nelly Shulman.

That number pales before the 210 Torah scrolls that are in use at 147 Russia! n and Ukrainian synagogues affiliated with the Chabad-sponsored Federa tion of Jewish Communities.

According to the federation’s executive director, Rabbi Avraham Berkowitz, most of those Torahs were left in the Soviet Union from pre-Bolshevik days, and returned to Chabad-affiliated congregations by state authorities since 1991; just a few were donated from abroad.

Berkowitz adds that 150 federation congregations still do not have Torah scrolls, and would welcome foreign partnerships.

“Twinning” is becoming a popular way for American synagogues to offer moral, and sometimes financial, support to struggling congregations in the former Soviet Union.

Donating a Torah, often one rescued from the Holocaust, is a way to cement that relationship. All of the Torahs belonging to Reform congregations in Ukraine came from twinned congregations abroad; three of Russia’s six were also foreign gifts, including one brought to Chelyabinsk this Passover by a visiting group of Reform rabbinical students from Hebrew Union College.

Dukhovny wonde! rs whether American Jews can appreciate the impact these donations have on post-Soviet Jewish communities.

“You in the U.S. grow up with Torahs, but to us it’s something new,” he said. “Donating a Torah symbolizes a restoration of Jewish life. Its value is beyond money. It’s about relationships, human connections. It’s a smile between your congregation and ours.”

What makes Emanu-El’s donation so unique, however, is that the San Jose group also gave Odessa the high-tech gear: a Hewlett-Packard laptop, fully loaded with software donated by Adobe and Microsoft Ukraine. The California shul also set up the Odessans with a state-of-the-art Web site so the two congregations can maintain an ongoing relationship.

“We can e-mail each other back and forth with our congregational news, to keep in touch,” says Hirshon, who not only purchased the Odessa congregation’s domain name, but built their site, set up their e-mail system and spent two days teaching a local congregant ! how to operate it all.

On the Friday afternoon before the donation ceremony, Hirshon, Chaffin and Magat met with a dozen members of Odessa’s Reform congregation in the group’s two-room basement rental apartment.

The Odessans plied their visitors with questions: How big is the Reform community in America? Is there any anti-Semitism? What is the government’s response? Do you have more men than women in your congregation because your rabbi is a man? What do you teach in your Sunday school?

“Odessa is ripe for a Reform day-care center,” said Julia Grisebshenko, the Ukrainian-born “para-rabbi” who has led Odessa’s Reform community for the last four years. “Chabad and Ohr Sameah both have preschools, but they only take halachic Jews. It’s a very painful problem, because we have a lot of mixed marriages and the children don’t have access to a Jewish education.”

“You may be surprised to hear that 60 percent of our preschool is not Jewish,” Magat pointed out, eliciting laughter and head-shaking from the Odessans.

At 6 p.m. that even! ing, more than 80 local Jews, dressed in their Shabbat finery, squeezed into a rented hall to witness the Torah from California being handed over to their community.

Grisebshenko was dressed in black trousers and a white silk shirt, a tallit draped across her shoulders. Her eyes shone with excitement. “Today, a new era is opening for us,” she said, beaming at the crowd.

The congregation sang Lecha Dodi, followed by the Amidah. Then Chaffin rose, clutching the Torah to her chest.

“The Torah is the most precious gift we as a congregation have,” she said, her voice shaking. “We in San Jose are blessed to have several. This one came to us soon after the creation of the State of Israel, and it is our great honor to present it to you.”

Tears rolling down her face, Chaffin passed the Torah to Magat, who passed it to Shulman, who handed it carefully to Grisebshenko.

Holding it tight, the young para-rabbi declared, “We are two different congregations, in two diff! erent countries. We speak two different languages. But we share the sa me faith.”

Shouldering her precious burden, Grisebshenko proudly paraded the scroll around the room as the congregation sang the words, “On three things the world is founded” — everyone straining forward to touch their Torah for the first time.

Once back at the lectern, Grisebshenko held the Torah while Magat lifted the covering, laid the scroll on the table and rolled it to Kedoshim, the week’s portion.

Calling the entire congregation to the front of the room, Magat said, “This is your Torah, so I want all of you who are able, to say the first blessing together with me.”

The words spilled out, haltingly, in a variety of accents, but ending together with a loud “Amen.”

After the service, Shulman explained what a tremendous deed had just been performed.

“One of the most wonderful things San Jose did is provide the Odessa congregation with a laptop, a link to the outside,” she said. “Most people don’t have computers at home. Especially in more remote pl! aces in the FSU that don’t get a lot of visitors, it’s so important to feel a part of the world Jewish community.

“But that works two ways,” she added. “A lot of American Jews don’t get much beyond their own congregations. They don’t know how difficult it is for many Jews outside the United States. This kind of act raises awareness that all Jews are responsible for one another.”

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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