Conservative movement steps up its European outreach

PARIS — Germany has one Conservative rabbi, a determined woman named Bea Wyler.

She covers three cities 150 miles apart, serving nearly 500 congregants. She works full time but receives a part-time salary; she has no secretary, no teaching staff and no car.

For five years, she's asked for support from the New York-based World Council of Conservative/Masorti Synagogues, whose member organizations and congregations promote the movement's growth.

But no aid has yet come.

"In Germany we get the feeling that we are very left out," she said.

Now the Conservative movement wants that to change.

Two weeks ago, the World Council met in Paris — the first time it has ever held a conference in continental Europe — to discuss ways to help rabbis like Wyler.

Acknowledging that it has largely ignored the opportunity to expand the Conservative movement in Europe, the World Council vowed to make itself a major presence in the burgeoning communities scattered across the continent.

"Conservative Judaism didn't initially see itself as a global movement," said Rabbi Alan Silverstein, the World Council's president. "Today it does."

Rabbi Gordon Freeman, of Conservative Congregation B'nai Shalom in Walnut Creek, attended the meeting and agreed that organizational structure in Europe has been lacking.

"In the past, the money was all directed to North America, since that's where the movement was," Freeman said. "We are just now beginning to get direction on a global scale. We have to create from the bottom up, with grassroots organizations."

Approximately 200 Conservative Jews from such countries as Sweden, Hungary, the Czech Republic, England, Ukraine and Russia convened to voice problems and brainstorm for solutions.

A rabbi from London said the Conservative movement in England is being suffocated by the aggressive publicity efforts of the Reform and Chabad movements.

The Czech Republic has no rabbi who is willing to stay longer than a few weeks. In Russia and Ukraine, there are sizable Jewish communities where not a single Jewish activity takes place.

Hungary has been successful in forming a liberal stream of Judaism called Neolog. Still, the synagogues do not have the money to offer Shabbat dinner to young people who seem interested in their heritage.

Despite the many difficulties that were discussed at the conference, several people spoke of achievements and tremendous promise for their communities.

Peter Gyori, program director of Bejt Praha in Prague, said he took out a newspaper ad announcing High Holy Day services last year, the first time such a thing has been done in Prague since the Holocaust. He expected 100 people to show up. Some 700 arrived.

In France the Conservative community opened its first synagogue last year.

Rabbi Rivon Krygier — a young, energetic, French native who was trained in Jerusalem and is the only Conservative rabbi in France — presides over the congregation of approximately 400 active families.

"In France no one has heard of the Conservative movement," he said. "We have had to do all the work ourselves to explain who we are."

Pledging that "the organizational structure of our movement needs to change," Silverstein said he would like to establish an international steering committee, a Web site and publications in several languages to unify Conservative Jews in Europe.