Israeli rabbi turning assimilated emigres on to Judaism

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JERUSALEM — In 1995, there were three shops selling pork in Ashkelon. Today, there are 25 .

Those who never thought they'd see ham in the Jewish state didn't count on the flood of emigres from the former Soviet Union and their craving for "the other white meat."

Underlying this phenomenon is the fact that the emigres arrived knowing little or nothing about Judaism, and as adults aren't inclined to begin religious observance.

Enter 33-year-old Reuven Resnick, a just-minted Conservative rabbi who has the new position of national absorption coordinator for Masorti, Israel's Conservative movement.

Basically, it is his job to make Judaism welcoming to the new emigres and gradually encourage them to establish their own Conservative congregations.

Resnick, who was ordained just last month in Israel, already is working with Russians in Ashdod, as well as in the Upper Nazareth and Kiryat Milichai. And in Ashkelon, despite the increased pork sales, he helped establish the first Russian-speaking Conservative congregation in Israel, Kehillat Anachnu Kan.

The name of the congregation epitomizes what Resnick is trying to accomplish.

"It means `We Are Here,'" he explained. "But it also emphasizes that like other Israelis, we intend to participate in determining our own future. And it also means that we are here for others."

The Russian-speaking rabbi has strong credentials to lead this 60-member flock in Ashkelon, a seaside city of about 250,000 between Tel Aviv and the Gaza Strip.

Resnick, who is originally from Cleveland, studied Russian at the University of Chicago, became an exchange student in Leningrad, made aliyah and completed a graduate program in "Sovietology" at Hebrew University. He was then sent by the Jewish Agency for Israel to work for a year with Jews in Kalingrad, Russia, where he met his Russian wife, Shulamit.

When he returned to Israel in 1994, Resnick found more and more emigres arriving "who are not only secular, but they feel alienated."

While enrolled in rabbinic studies, he began working in 1995 with Project Roots, a program funded by the JAFI to integrate Ashkelon's emigres into Jewish life.

"I'm personally motivated by what I feel is a void here in Israel," he said. "In most countries, Jewish life is made accessible with camps, youth clubs, etc. But the tragedy is that Israel society feels religion is the realm of the Orthodox."

Resnick said he tries to show emigres that they don't have to be Orthodox to be religious.

And what of the Orthodox who hold the franchise over major lifecycle ceremonies in Israel from conversions to weddings to burials? How do they feel about Resnick trying to turning the emigres into Conservative Jews?

"The religious establishment," he said, "has made peace with the fact that the Russian emigres are secular and they have written them off."

But Resnick feels that many of these emigres are searching for some kind of religious experience.

What he did in Ashkelon and is now doing in the three other cities is to offer emigres a Friday night meal with a speaker. While they listen to the lecture, their kids are in a nearby room learning Jewish games.

As weeks go by, song and simple prayers like the Sh'ma are added into the mix.

"We try to give them a positive experience, an emotional experience, a religious experience," Resnick said.

"Our challenge is to make Jewish community life attractive to them so they lower their resistance to it."

And when he meets resistance?

"My No. 1 rule is to never give up," he insists. "I take into account their cultural background and their cultural needs. I want to introduce them to a religious experience that they feel is theirs."

But the process of winning over emigres to Judaism doesn't come cheap. It is very labor intensive for Resnick and the couple of staff members who work with him. But based on the success of the congregation in Ashkelon, there is every reason to push forward.

In the Upper Nazareth, several hundred emigres are attending his Shabbat programs. In Ashdod, just north of Ashkelon, he began working with emigres in September. And his program in Kiryat Milichai is just getting under way.

He said he needs $50,000 to $70,000 for each additional city he takes on. He is hoping JAFI will provide additional funding but admits that much of the money he needs has to come from donations made by Conservative congregations in America.

Resnick said his main goal is not to close down the pork establishments, as much as it is to show emigres that they, too, "can live the Jewish experience."