2 area Reform rabbis witness Jewish revival in ex-USSR

On a recent visit to Kiev, two East Bay Reform rabbis visited Babi Yar and stood where 200,000 Jews were massacred during World War II.

Rabbi Steve Kaplan of Temple Beth Torah in Fremont and Rabbi Allen Bennett of Temple Israel in Alameda formed a circle with 23 others, mostly Reform rabbis from the United States and Canada, around a seven-branch menorah monument near the pit where the bodies had been thrown. And in that spot, overlooking a ravine, the rabbis held a prayer service broadcast by Ukrainian television.

"For the Ukrainians to see the connection between world Jewry and the Jews in their country is very important," said Kaplan, who along with Bennett took part in a whirlwind ARZA/World Union tour through Germany, Ukraine and Russia from Feb.25 through March 4.

"The Jewish communities in all three places are struggling right now," said Kaplan. "Any show of solidarity and connection is a real plus for them."

Describing the trip as intensive, with a full and "very politically oriented" itinerary, Bennett said they spent a good deal of time in meetings with government officials from the countries they were visiting, as well as Israeli and American diplomats. The main object was to garner support for those Jews in Berlin, Kiev and Moscow who prefer more liberal Jewish practices to Orthodoxy.

"Up until recently, only Orthodox Jewish communities received government funding," explained Bennett. "The goal was to get government representatives who deal with religious affairs to understand that there is a significant Jewish community that doesn't affiliate with the Orthodox movement but still deserves support."

In each of the three countries, the rabbis visited sites of interest to the burgeoning Jewish communities there, met with Jewish leaders and took part in religious ceremonies.

For instance, they toured the Jewish Museum Berlin, which is still under construction and scheduled to open formally later this year. For Kaplan, the visit represented one of the most memorable experiences of the entire trip. He described how the rabbis entered a dark room of the museum, heard a door shut and then felt a rush of cold air.

"There was only a little beacon of light at the top," he said. "As you stood there, you realized it was meant to simulate the feeling of a gas chamber. It was very eerie and haunting."

The strides made in Berlin and the other Jewish communities after "decades of struggling for democracy," said Kaplan, are remarkable.

Commenting on the Kabbalat Shabbat and Havdallah services in which the rabbis participated while in Moscow, Kaplan added, "Ten years ago, it all would have been done underground, if at all."

Despite the increased openness and improvement, there is still a long way to go, said Bennett. For instance, the rabbi in Kiev, Alexander Dukhovny, who was ordained two years ago, serves more than 40 congregations by himself.

"What kind of job could that be?" Bennett asked.

And in Moscow's Victory Park, where the rabbis witnessed a b'nai mitzvah for five teenagers, the ceremony left a lot to be desired, Kaplan noted. "The students didn't do much. They didn't even read from the Torah. All they did was give a speech."

Yet the ceremony — which Kaplan said became a heated topic of discussion among the rabbis — was at least a step in the right direction, he stressed. "There was a bit of a divergence of opinion between us, but most said let it alone, they're just starting out. Others said if we don't challenge their practices and teach them the right way, how will they learn?"

For Bennett, watching Jewish kindergartners "singing and dancing for us American rabbis" really hit home. It emphasized "the importance of supporting the institutions there.

"If the tables were turned and we were reviving after such a long dormancy, we'd appreciate any help provided," Bennett added. "If nothing else, for the young people growing up in those countries, so they can get a sense of what it is to be Jewish, or even that they are Jewish at all."