Saturday, December 18, 2004


Female Russian rabbi aids resurgence of Russian Judaism

A heartwarming story.
A Russian Rabbi Teaches Jews, First Off, to Be Jews


MOSCOW - Before the rabbi reached the village, a remote town in Belarus, the local Jewish council members were at odds over the merits of their guest. At length one council member, an older gentleman, finally sighed, "Well, a woman is better than nothing."

Nelly A. Shulman, the first and so far the only Russian-born woman to be a rabbi in the former Soviet Union, shakes her blond hair and laughs as she recalls the day she showed up in the village. Other than that incident, she says, the welcome from Jews returning to their faith here has been warm.

Ms. Shulman, 31, has a doubly difficult task in the former Soviet Union, where for decades religion was banned. She is educating Jews about Judaism first, and then must explain the Reform movement. Meanwhile, she has overcome the gender bias in some measure by staying for five years as a rabbi in Belarus and now in Moscow, where she also leads a Reform rabbinical training program.

To an extent that surprises even her, she is a trailblazer. "My replacement rabbi for Belarus went back to one of the kindergartens where I worked and introduced himself as the new rabbi," she recalled. "The children who'd grown up with me replied, 'But you can't be. All rabbis are women!' "

Ms. Shulman and other Jewish leaders here are tending to a growing flock. Jews here are embracing religion, especially after Russian President Vladimir V. Putin publicly endorsed a chief rabbi in Russia and appointed a prime minister, Mikhail Fradkov, whose father is Jewish. Jews who left in Soviet times have in recent years begun trickling back, motivated by the booming, oil-driven economy and the demand for educated labor, as well as the violence of recent years in Israel.

And Jews have stopped leaving in large numbers. From a high point of 189,000 in 1990, the number of Jews leaving for Israel has dropped to about 10,000 a year, according to Avraham Berkowitz, an American-born rabbi here and executive director of the Federation of Jewish Communities in Russia and the former Soviet republics. Over the past two years, he said, more than 60,000 returned to Russia. Estimates vary, but Russia's Jewish population now ranges from one million to two million, with most in Moscow, according to studies like one by the Russian Jewish Communities Federation. Those returning form a sort of "reaspora," with some citing feelings of being more at home culturally, worries about terrorism, or simply the chance for a better job.

Ms. Shulman's personal history is one of circling back to Judaism with more curiosity and determination each time. She was born in 1972 in what is now St. Petersburg, to parents who were nominally Jewish, she says with a laugh, but "really they were Communists." Her father did not practice at all. Her mother was more involved, lighting candles on holidays, going to synagogue once a year and studying Hebrew clandestinely.

"You couldn't do more unless you wanted to become a refusenik," Ms. Shulman said.

She recalls, as a teenager, wandering into St. Petersburg's only synagogue, which was Orthodox (and was subsequently restored by the late banker and philanthropist Edmond Safra). She felt little or nothing, she says. "Spirituality was completely absent. We all thought religion was for old people."

It was not until 1992, when she was invited to a service, that she became intrigued with Reform Judaism, then just starting up in Russia. After college, she was invited to apply to Leo Baeck College in London, a Reform rabbinical school, in part because she was fluent in four languages, including Hebrew. She completed a six-year program - four years at rabbinical college, a year in Israel and an internship in the former Soviet Union. She moved to Minsk, capital of Belarus, in August 1998, as one of three Reform rabbis in the former Soviet Union, and the only woman to be a rabbi. (The Orthodox do not ordain women.) Although there are now about 100 Reform congregations across Russia's 11 time zones, many operate with visiting rabbis.

Anti-Semitism remains a problem in Russia, but is less pronounced than in Europe, according to a 2003 report by a Moscow affiliate of the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews.
When I lived in Moscow in 1981-82, I was friends with a family of refuseniks. I went to the Moscow synagogue with Zhenya to get matzoh for his Pesach seder (the one time of year and the only place in Russia where Jews could get matzoh). The idea that there would be native-born Russian rabbis in Russia 20 years later would have seemed comically (and tragically) impossible to Russian Jews at the time. The lesson is, for Jews, to never say never, never think never.
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