From S.F. to Moscow and Tel Aviv: Emanu-El births twins

Two rabbis from Congregation Emanu-El went abroad recently and came back with twins.

Not twin babies to take care of, but twin congregations, one in Russia and one in Israel.

The San Francisco Reform synagogue did have relationships with a few Jewish families in the Russian town of Ryazan, established with the help of the Bay Area Council for Jewish Rescue and Renewal. This, however, is the first time the synagogue is officially “twinning” with a Russian synagogue.

“We wanted to have a congregational connection, especially through the World Union for Progressive Judaism,” said Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan, education director at Emanu-El. “That was an important part of the story because it has not been that visible in the Bay Area.”

The relationship began when a group of young Russian Jewish leaders visited the Bay Area last year. “I realized they had no congregational connection with anyone,” said Wolf-Prusan. The rabbi found this all the more surprising since they are in Moscow, where Jewish visitors are frequent.

So when the World Union held its biennial conference in Moscow this summer, people from Emanu-El made it their business to visit a Moscow synagogue and establish a partnership.

Wolf-Prusan compared Moscow to San Francisco, in that “there are many people coming out of the woodwork, saying ‘How do I lead a Jewish life?'”

The nature of the relationship is still being worked out, but it does include $5,000 worth of support going from San Francisco to Moscow. It also includes a number of exchange visits.

“There’s a lot to be learned,” said Wolf-Prusan. “And for those of us active in the struggle for Soviet Jewry, this is not a narrative we ever predicted. We would never have guessed that in 2005 we’d be in Russia having a Kabbalat Shabbat service that is rocking.”

Emanu-El has partnered with a second synagogue, in what may seem like an unlikely place to some: Israel.

While Jerusalem has Jews of all types — including an active Reform synagogue or two — the secular haven of Tel Aviv is a very different story.

“There are a lot of similarities with Beit Daniel too,” said the rabbi, of their new twin synagogue in Tel Aviv. “It is a progressive Jewish congregation reaching out to a sea of non-observant Jews who happen to speak Hebrew.”

Rabbi Stephen Pearce, the senior rabbi of Emanu-El, was in Israel this summer, and met with the leadership of Beit Daniel.

“Beit Daniel is laboring under such difficulties in terms of being understaffed,” said Pearce. “On a weekend, the rabbi can do six weddings, or over 100 bar mitzvahs. He doesn’t have enough help, and we thought one way to be useful was to make a small grant to let them know that Reform Jews here care about the future of Reform Judaism in Israel.”

Pearce said that he and the rabbi talked about some exchanges in the future, but the relationship is just getting started now.

Several other Bay Area synagogues have twinned with Russian congregations; Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills has twinned with a congregation in Poltava, Ukraine; and Temple Emanu-El in San Jose donated a Torah and a laptop to a progressive community in Kiev last year. The synagogue had five Torahs, and decided that surely, there must be a community somewhere that needed it more than they did. Before donating it, they had a scribe ensure that it was kosher; it wasn’t, so it was fixed.

“All synagogues are going through some financial heartache now, but it really puts it in perspective to see people creating a synagogue. They have hundreds of people trying to survive with next to nothing and without a rabbi,” said Jonathan Hirshon, a Temple Emanu-El congregant who accompanied the Torah to Kiev.

Hirshon explained that a woman congregant there functions as a sort of “para-rabbi,” in that she has some training, but is not a full-fledged rabbi.

“When we brought the Torah in, there were people crying. It was the first time they’d ever seen one,” said Hirshon. “I think they didn’t feel like a synagogue until they had one.”

The laptop was also invaluable. Hirshon trained several of them on how to use it. He also helped them configure the computer to use the donated Microsoft Windows and other programs in Russian.

He said, “It’s their contact to the outside world.”

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."