Sole Reform rabbi in Ukraine brings quest to San Rafael

When Alex Dukhovny was a child in Ukraine, his mother told him he should not drink milk with meat or work on the Sabbath. When he asked, "Why?" his mother replied only, "Tradition."

Though her father was a rabbi, Dukhovny's mother understood little about Judaism. She did not know why Jews rest on Saturday or keep kosher, as her father had been killed, along with most of her family, in the Holocaust. She grew up under communist rule, when it was forbidden to practice Judaism or any religion.

So her son, after working as an engineer for more than 20 years, set out to answer his own questions about Judaism. At 44, following the fall of communism, he went to London to begin rabbinical studies.

Now he serves as the only Progressive, or Reform, rabbi in Ukraine — a country the size of Texas. In that role he oversees 47 congregations serving about 15,000 Jews.

The 53-year-old rabbi is determined to establish a Reform movement in Ukraine. In San Rafael last week, Dukhovny gave a Shabbat sermon Jan. 24 at Reform Congregation Rodef Sholom.

Although state-sanctioned anti-Semitism no longer exists in his homeland, Reform Jews feel hostility from the Ukraine's Chassidic Jewish establishment, said Dukhovny, whose work in Ukraine is sponsored by ARZA/World Union, North America.

Ukraine's 40 other rabbis ministering to more than 100 congregations all are Chassidic, he said, adding that they will not say how many of Ukraine's 500,000 Jews belong to their congregations. But in Ukraine, the Chassidic rabbis, all born in Israel or the United States, do not view Ukraine's Reform congregations as legitimate, he said.

The rabbi was in California to pick up a Torah scroll that a Long Beach congregation is donating to a congregation in Lvov, the first city in Ukraine to have a Reform congregation. The Germans destroyed Lvov's synagogue, built in 1826, in 1941. Today, Lvov Jews have no temple, but they will soon have a Torah.

Dukhovny delivered his talk to some 200 congregants in San Rafael before heading to Southern California to pick up the scroll. Wearing a stylish gray suit with a snazzy floral tie and a silk handkerchief peeking out of his breast pocket, the clean-shaven Dukhovny looked more like a businessman from London than a rabbi from Ukraine.

"The first year of my studies in London I thought, 'I'm very altruistic,'" he told congregants. Speaking in English tinged with both Russian and British inflections, he said, "I gave up job and car and a nice apartment to live in a 'nun's cell.' I came to suffer at the age of 44. It is not that I came for the sake of Jews in Ukraine. I came to discover myself."

He remains in Ukraine to help Jews there maintain their Jewish identities. His decision to stay in his homeland represents a special sacrifice: He married a fellow rabbi on the day of their 1999 ordination, and his wife leads a congregation in London. She makes significantly more money than he does working part-time, he said.

Most of Dukhovny's congregants are poor. The average Ukrainian pensioner, including many in his congregation, earns $20 a month, he said, while the average worker earns about $70 a month. The money doesn't go far, given that a pair of shoes costs $150.

Dukhovny urged the San Rafael congregation to consider financially supporting, or in his words, "adopting" a Ukrainian congregation.

He said he remains in Ukraine to educate Jews, so they and their children will understand who they are — in a way he did not as a child.

When he was 3 years old, he said, his teachers bathed him and the other children in his kindergarten class in the middle of the classroom. The teachers laughed at him because he was circumcised. He went home and cried. Though his mother reassured him, he felt a lingering discomfort.

"Why I am Jewish?" he asked. "Why I am born in Soviet Union?"

His mother replied: "Your history is in this country. Your roots are here. It will be time when you will rejoice in being a Jew."

Twenty years later, when he was traveling in Holland, Dukhovny met a rabbi whose appearance surprised him. "It couldn't be a rabbi," he thought. "How can rabbi be such a human-looking person?"

Until then, Dukhovny said, he could only imagine a Chassidic rabbi. "I didn't want to go back to the 17th century to wear sidelocks," he said. "I'm a fancy guy.

"There are many Jews in Ukraine thinking Judaism is about past," he said. "Judaism is about present and future."