Reform Judaism rocks in cool community

tuymen, russia (jta) | A Siberian Shabbat doesn’t get much cooler than this.

Kirill Drozdov starts jamming on his electric keyboard. Vocal sidekick Slava Tkachuk feels the harsh beat by rhythmically tapping his Converse high tops.

The 40 young spectators lock arms and begin swaying in a sea of Tommy Hilfiger knockoffs and retro-style nylon Adidas jackets that pop up in Brooklyn second-hand stores more often than in Siberian synagogues.

“This is our version: ‘Lecha Dodi,’ rhythm and blues style,” shouts Drozdov, his ponytail flopping to the melody.

Tuymen is Russia’s only flourishing Reform community outside of Moscow, and on this Saturday it rocks all day and into the night.

Russia’s only restored Reform synagogue is a gorgeously remodeled structure where multiple organizations steer the Progressive wagon for the 2,500 Jews in Siberia’s oldest city.

Youths learn Jewish history and traditions at a Sunday school sponsored by the Israeli Embassy. They study Hebrew in a classroom provided by the Jewish Agency for Israel. The dance team prepares for its second straight appearance at an international festival in Moscow.

Middle-aged women fill the Jewish cooking club. Senior citizens revive their childhood memories at the Yiddish club, fix torn attire at the sewing club and receive medical treatment and food assistance at the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s Hesed center.

“None of these organizations can afford to maintain this building alone, so we have to unite,” says Rafael Goldberg, the community chairman responsible for maintaining cohesion in Tuymen’s sole Jewish address.

With an annual budget of slightly more than $1 million for the former Soviet Union, the World Union of Progressive Judaism doesn’t have the money to cultivate many communities like this.

It’s a far cry from the Chabad-affiliated Federation of Jewish Communities’ budget for the former Soviet Union. The budget, at about $12 million, paves the way for the group’s dominance of religious life for Russian Jewry — which, ironically, is largely secular and assimilated.

The WUPJ isn’t even registered with the Russian government and functions only as a subsidiary of the Orthodox Keroor (United Russian Synagogues) movement.

WUPJ officials say Russia’s chief Chabad rabbi, Berl Lazar, who is closely tied to the Kremlin, blocked non-Orthodox congregations from registering independently under Russian law, a charge the federation denies.

Back in Tuymen, Roza Dmitrieva, 77, dubs herself “Head of the Rags” as the person responsible for sewing kippot and patching old clothes for needy congregants.

She’s also a regular at the Yiddish club, where she is relearning all she forgot from her youth in Ukraine.

“I feel spiritually full here, because I have the Soviet mentality that resents more traditional forms of Judaism,” she says of the Reform congregation. “Orthodox requirements are too hard an adjustment for me. I feel quite at ease over here. My soul and thoughts are at a higher level.”

About a dozen youths gather downstairs for Sunday school, where today’s subject is Israel. The two most rambunctious kids belong to Sergiush Manzhiyevsky, a 42-year-old baptized Pole who insists on raising his kids Jewish.

“I tell them this is a Jewish church,” he says. “But the church is too tough, and this place is fun and provides a basis for Torah. Judaism will become a habit for them. They will only learn good things here.”

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