Liberal Judaism impacting Eastern Europe, leader says

Ten years ago, Hungarian-born Kati Kelemann didn't even know she was Jewish. Today, she is Eastern Europe's first woman rabbi.

With the help of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, she leads Sim Shalom, a Reform congregation of 120 households in Budapest.

The World Union provides Sim Shalom's prayerbooks and pays Kelemann's salary.

There is still no board of directors or building yet; the congregation meets in a three-room apartment and rents a hall for High Holy Day services. But it has a real treasure: Torah scrolls from late 19th-century Hungary that made it through World War II in a barn loft.

"They only survived because they had been wrapped in a sheet all that time. We paid the woman who had been housing it $500, which was a fortune to her," said Robin Michaelson, World Union's chairman in Europe. He was in San Francisco last week for a personal visit with philanthropist Golda Kaufman — his aunt.

The World Union, which is based in Jerusalem, acts as an umbrella group for Reform and Reconstructionist Jews throughout the world. As part of its work, the group is reaching out to Eastern Europe, where Jews have been exposed only to Orthodoxy or nothing at all.

The more liberal Jewish movements apparently click with modern-day Eastern European Jews, many of whom have known nothing but secularism in their lives.

When Kelemann began her spiritual odyssey, for example, she found Orthodoxy "too extreme," Michaelson said.

As part of his personal outreach, Michaelson travels from his London home to Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia to connect with small Jewish Reform communities.

In Vilnius, Lithuania, for example, a synagogue that was converted into a store following World War II has been reborn as a Reform synagogue. Fifty to 60 gather for Friday night services.

There are 54 such communities throughout Europe, including in cities such as Barcelona, Milan and Lyon.

Michaelson also takes interested travelers on "roots tours" to Eastern Europe, as part of his mission to instill in Reform Jews a sense of connection with points east. Travelers visit their ancestors' birthplaces, graves and the homes.

His personal pilgrimage took him to the home of his late great-grandmother in Tabariskes, a small village outside Vilnius.

"Little had changed in 100 years," he said. "There are the same little wooden houses. There is electricity but no water going to the homes. People brought buckets to the communal well. It was like something out of an opera."

To bring liberal Judaism to those in former Eastern Bloc nations, he said, "we need more rabbis, and materials printed in local languages. Between Copenhagen and St. Petersburg, a distance of about 700 miles, 10 different languages are spoken, and nobody speaks the other's language."

The World Union's efforts are coming together, bit by bit. "We just had the Chumash translated into German, and we also just introduced a [Reform] prayerbook into Russian," he added.

Michaelson also has matched up some of the communities with "twin congregations" in other countries. His own West London Synagogue is partner to Sim Shalom.

He became aware of the congregation when Kelemann, whose father told her in the mid-1980s that the family was Jewish but had cloaked its identity to escape persecution, came to London to study for the rabbinate. Now, when Jews from Budapest come to visit, they stay with West London Synagogue families.

"They take them to dinner and get to know them," he said.

As part of the exchange, Michaelson has met unforgettable characters, like Jakob Bunka, 75, who sculpted a monument out of tree trunks to each person in the village of Plunge, Lithuania, who perished in the Holocaust.

There was the villager, one of only "four or five" Jews left, who lovingly maintains the mass grave of 100 men, women and children rounded up and gunned down by Nazis in the forest of Vilna.

"When he goes, I don't know what will happen to it," Michaelson said.

So far, he has met with a willing, if somewhat problematic, reception.

For instance, there are many "who like the services that come with Jewish organizations, like kosher meals, but they are not interesting in the religion," he said. "The challenge there is education."

As for the young people, he said, "They want to be part of a community. There is a whole revival. And we want to be useful."

Rebecca Rosen Lum

Rebecca Rosen Lum is a freelance writer.