In-Depth Coverage: Across the Former Soviet Union Lack of funding seen as reason Reform Judaism's not bigger in Russia - Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion
Skip to main content

In-Depth Coverage: Across the Former Soviet Union Lack of funding seen as reason Reform Judaism's not bigger in Russia

Main Content
Friday, July 1, 2005

By Lev Krichevsky 

MOSCOW, July 13 (JTA) - The Reform movement's revolution in Russia hinges on money. 

That's the message conveyed by many local participants during a recent meeting of the worldwide Reform movement in Moscow. 

Some 400 Reform leaders, rabbis and educators from two dozen countries gathered in the Russian capital for the 32nd international biennial convention of the World Union for Progressive Judaism in a meeting touted as the largest gathering of Jewish leaders here since the 1917 Russian Revolution. 

Although the World Union, with 1.5 million members, represents the largest organizational body of any Jewish stream worldwide, its presence in the former Soviet Union is still quite small compared with that of Chabad. There are just six Reform rabbis working in Ukraine, Russia and Belarus today, compared with Chabad's several hundred. Just 70 Reform congregations receive financial assistance from the World Union, compared with more than 450 congregations affiliated with the Chabad-sponsored Federation of Jewish Communities of the Former Soviet Union. 

It was precisely to show support for their movement in the former Soviet Union that the World Union chose Moscow as the site for its international conference this year, held June 30-July 5. 

"For us, this is an indication of the trust and satisfaction in the growth of our movement here, a show of support and solidarity with our movement in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and the Baltics," said Rabbi Uri Regev, the Jerusalem-based executive director of the World Union. 

Reform leaders also noted that this summer marks 15 years since the establishment of Hineini, the first Reform congregation in the former Soviet Union, in Moscow. 

"Even though we have been here for a relatively short period of time, studies of the Jewish community show a clear preference of Russian Jews for Reform Judaism over Chabad or other Orthodox Judaism," Regev said, referring to a yet-unpublished study of Russian Jewry whose authors shared their findings with World Union leaders ahead of this month's conference. 

The survey was conducted by Vladimir Shapiro, a leading Russian Jewish sociologist. It showed that more than 20 percent of Jews in St. Petersburg view Reform Judaism as the most attractive branch of the religion, compared with the less than 10 percent who said they prefer Chabad and the less than 5 percent who opted for non-Chasidic Orthodoxy. The remaining respondents said they are not interested in Judaism as a religion. 

"What makes Chabad stronger than us?" asked Georgiy Gonik, the lay leader for a 50-member Reform congregation in Krasnodar, a southern Russian city. 

His assessment, which is echoed by many other Reform leaders in the former Soviet Union, is that it is mostly an issue of money. 

According to the World Union's 2004 annual report, the Reform body spent $1.6 million on activities in the region. 

In contrast, Chabad spent more than $70 million from its central budget on the Federation of Jewish Communities, last year. 

"In 15 years, we got only one computer for our Sunday school that we bought with help from a sister congregation in London," Gonik said. "A Chabad rabbi arrived in town only last year and immediately bought 10 computers." 

The Reform movement in the former Soviet Union still lacks basic components, local participants said, from lay leaders committed to supporting congregations to Russian-language books on Judaism. 

Unlike some other representatives of Reform congregations in the region, Gonik said that he did not come to the conference only to seek contacts with foreign synagogues and leaders who might provide some help to his cash-strapped community, although his congregation is far from well off. 

The Krasnodar congregation receives $300 monthly from the Reform movement's Moscow headquarters, which it supplements with $50 collected in membership fees. 

"I've been with the movement for 12 years now, and we still need simple things such as books -- from basic books on Judaism to more advanced religious publications," he said, adding that the copies of two Russian-language Reform prayer books published by the movement are the "main valuables" in his congregation. 

Rabbi Grigory Kotlyar, the Moscow-based head of the Reform movement in Russia, said the movement has a huge potential for attracting the majority of Russia's non-affiliated Jews who come from mixed marriages and cannot find their place in an Orthodox environment. 

"Unfortunately, our movement has not yet made any serious effort to attract these people," he said during a panel discussion at the conference. "After 15 years, we are still at the very beginning of our activity." 

For example, Kotlyar said he runs the programs of the Moscow Reform Center out of a rented space that cannot accommodate more than 70 people. That space limitation, he said, is enough to restrict any further growth in his congregation. 

Vladimir Torchinsky, who just helped set up a Progressive congregation in Khabarovsk, a remote community in the Russian Far East, said creating an attractive space for the congregation would allow it to bring in more people, especially the younger generation. 

"If we get a space of our own, we could attract more youth, have a real synagogue," said the 29-year-old graduate of Machon, the World Union's Moscow institute for para-rabbinic leaders. 

Regev said that by holding its convention in Russia, the World Union is sending a signal to its leadership that Reform congregations in the region require more support and attention. 

During the conference, he announced two new movement initiatives designed to help congregations: an interfaith seminar to be held near Moscow that will bring together Jewish, Moslem and Russian Orthodox youths in a social-action project; and the impending completion of a Web-based Russian-language translation of the Plaut Modern Torah Commentary, the first modern liberal interpretation of the Pentateuch in Russian. 

"Bringing international leaders here was intended to step up our activities in the region," Regev said, noting that the World Union sponsors 60 youth clubs in the former Soviet Union, with more than 1,500 regular members. 

"Help us have not 1,500, but 15,000," he said during an emotional appeal to convention attendees. "They are out there." 

Said the outgoing president of the World Union, Ruth Cohen: "We definitely hope to encourage more financial support. A foreign congregation can become a sort of godfather, providing them with a synagogue building, prayer books, and so on." 

Rabbi Zinovy Kogan of the Hineini congregation said he is not counting that much on outside help but wants to focus on reaching out to those Jews who have not yet developed any serious interest in Judaism and Jewish life. 

"Will the money start flowing from abroad after the conference? I'm not sure," he said. "We have thousands of Jews who don't go anywhere, neither to Chabad, nor to us. Our movement started here as a movement of independent-thinking intellectuals. I hope that when more people like that come to us, when they learn our way of life better, they themselves will start supporting the congregations." 

JTA correspondent Sue Fishkoff contributed to this report. 

Jewish reps in former Soviet Union look for help from Western 'relatives'

By Sue Fishkoff 

MOSCOW, July 13 (JTA) - 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."

Founded in 1875, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion is North America's leading institution of higher Jewish education and the academic, spiritual, and professional leadership development center of Reform Judaism. HUC-JIR educates leaders to serve North American and world Jewry as rabbis, cantors, educators, and nonprofit management professionals, and offers graduate programs to scholars and clergy of all faiths. With centers of learning in Cincinnati, Jerusalem, Los Angeles, and New York, HUC-JIR's scholarly resources comprise the renowned Klau Library, The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, museums, research institutes and centers, and academic publications. In partnership with the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, HUC-JIR sustains the Reform Movement's congregations and professional and lay leaders. HUC-JIR's campuses invite the community to cultural and educational programs illuminating Jewish heritage and fostering interfaith and multiethnic understanding.