10 years later, Reform Jews thrive in former Soviet land

MOSCOW — In 1985, Jews launched the Reform movement in the Soviet Union under a shroud of secrecy.

"We organized an underground gathering to celebrate the Jewish New Year because people did not want to go to the state-controlled synagogue. We had no shofar and I took a deer horn" and I "drilled and sawed it myself," said Reform Jewish leader Rabbi Zinovy Kogan.

As Reform Jewish leaders from across the former Soviet Union gathered with their compatriots from around the world last week in a spacious Moscow hotel to celebrate 10 years of "official" progressive Judaism, as Reform Judaism is known in much of the world, they had no such problem.

Now, there is no need to worship clandestinely — and the Reform movement, particularly since the fall of Soviet communism in 1991, has spread across the former Soviet Union.

There are now more than 90 congregations across the former Soviet Union, according to Kogan, mainly in Russia and Ukraine.

Reform Jewish worshipers now live everywhere from Kaliningrad, a Russian enclave inside Germany, to a community in Murmansk that, according to a Reform Jewish leader, is the Jewish community closest to the North Pole.

Their efforts are being recognized. When the longtime Orthodox chief rabbi of Russia, Adolph Shayevich, told the Reform delegation, "We can't rebuild Russian Jewry without you," the response was enthusiastic.

"We have never heard such a sympathetic statement from a chief rabbi of any country. We welcome Shayevich's wisdom in appreciating that without progressive Judaism there is no world Jewry and no possibility to recreate Russian Jewish life," said Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, the executive director of ARZA/World Union, the umbrella organization for Reform Jewry in the United States.

But freedom and growth have brought their share of problems.

A lack of qualified rabbis is one. It is difficult, said Austin Beutel, the president of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, to persuade rabbis and other Western-trained Jewish professionals to move to Russia and lead a community.

In an effort to solve this problem, last fall in Moscow the movement opened an institution for training social workers and community leaders, headed by Chaim Ben-Yaakov, a Russian-born progressive rabbi.

The next step is under discussion — opening a rabbinical seminary in Moscow similar to the one run by the Conservative movement in Hungary.

But even then the problem of keeping the graduates in Russia will stay.

"We can't act the way Chabad does. They are an army. An emissary just gets his orders and goes to a Siberian city to settle there. Reform Judaism, either to its credit or otherwise, does not have an army," says Beutel.

While Reform leaders say they have great respect for Chabad- Lubavitch, the fervently religious, Orthodox organization, the two groups are at odds in communities across Russia — usually over the return of synagogue buildings and other communal Jewish property.

Both movements have very strong financial backers who are investing money in an effort to expand activities in the former Soviet Union.

When a Chabad group elected a second Russian chief rabbi, it became clear that Judaism in the former Soviet Union has become polarized.

However, many Russian Jewish leaders say that this intra-community fighting doesn't concern them; rather, they are too busy trying to draw in more Jews to their local synagogues.