From Ukraine with love

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When Alla Mahas arrived in the Bay Area two weeks ago, she was welcomed as an important visiting dignitary.

The spiritual leader, or “para-rabbi,” of a progressive Jewish congregation in Poltava, Ukraine, came as the guest of Congregation Beth Am of Los Altos

Hills to observe American Jewish practices and bring her newfound knowledge back home.

Not bad for a 21-year-old college student.

Mahas has held the reins of the 200-member Beth Am of Poltava for nearly three years — the two Beth Ams are sister congregations — and though she is young, she compensates with ongoing Jewish studies and a zeal for bringing Judaism to her community.

Considering the history of oppression in the former Soviet Union, it’s always a small miracle when Jews from the region embrace the traditions of their ancestors. That is precisely Mahas’ story.

Alla Mahas grew up in Poltava, once the home of writer Nikolai Gogol and site of an 18th-century battle between Peter the Great and Swedish invaders (the Swedes lost, returning home to make affordable low-end furniture).

It’s also home to 2,500 Jews out of a population of 320,000. Though Ukraine is infamous for entrenched anti-Semitism, Mahas says it was her non-Jewish mother who was most supportive of her career in Jewish congregational life.

“My father never talked about his Jewishness,” she says through an interpreter. “But my mother respects Jews very much. When she was a child she was evicted from her home, but a Jewish family took her in.”

An invitation to join a Jewish teen group several years ago sparked Mahas’ interest in Judaism. Today she is a student at the Institute for Jewish Studies’ Machon program run by the World Union of Progressive Judaism.

Last year she spent five months in Israel, learning Hebrew and extending her para-rabbinic training. “It was great for me as a person who loves to study,” she says. “It gave me a lot of food for thought and a better understanding of the country.”

Meanwhile, Congregation Beth Am had already been a supporter of the Poltava congregation. Currently, the South Bay Reform congregation contributes $7,000 towards Mahas’ operating expenses, with the JointDistribution Committee kicking in additional funds.

It’s a shoestring budget, but somehow Mahas makes it work for her 5-year-old congregation. She rents three tiny rooms in a downtown office building, out of which she oversees Shabbat services, Jewish education and cultural programming. High Holy Day services are held in the local Israeli Cultural Center.

“The impact of this young woman is amazing,” says Cheri Half, a Beth Am member who helped coordinate the “twinning” program between the two congregations. “She’s a spiritual leader, she’s been to Israel, she writes a column in local Jewish paper and she’s balancing full-time college.”

While Mahas is in town, she will embark on a whirlwind tour of the region. “We’re showing her the breadth of the Jewish community here,” says Half. “She’ll be meeting people and getting to know how Jews celebrate here in California.”

Over the course of the year, Congregation Beth Am holds fund-raising events for its sister congregation in Poltava, with the biggest, a concert featuring singer Pamela Rose, coming up on April 23. Given the Beth Am community’s large contingent of Russian-speaking émigrés, it’s truly a labor of love.

For Mahas, this trip and her daily experience building Judaism in the Ukraine are both dreams come true. But only two of them.

“Growing up, I wanted to be a teacher,” she says. “I have now been able to do it. What I want now is to become a cantor. That is my dream.”

“Music for a Sunday Afternoon,” a fund-raiser for the Poltava congregation, takes place 2:30 p.m. Sunday, April 23, at Congregation Beth Am, 26790 Arastradero Road, Los Altos Hills. Tickets: $18-$25. Information: (650) 948-5748.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.