Peter J. Rubinstein | September 15, 2004
Philip and Naomi Rubinstein, having died before I was born, were never able to tell me their story, but I imagine that they departed their shtetl of Ivinetz, Belarus, with enormous trepidation. Seven years apart from each other, in 1904 and 1911, they arrived on the Lower East Side of Manhattan searching for a better life on these unknown shores.
I had always assumed that when my grandparents left Ivinetz, every Jew in the town would have seen the same ominous signs and would have left as well. And if some had remained, I believed that in time they would have been vanquished by the Holocaust and the Communist regime. So, I was astounded to discover recently that there is in the region of Minsk, as I knew there had been in other Central and Eastern European areas, a small but continuing Jewish population that survived the pogroms and the Nazis and Stalin, and which now has miraculously returned to communal life.
Like fragile shoots flowering after the passing of winter, Jewish communal life has again emerged in Central and Eastern Europe. With the demise of the Communist regime, Jewish communities have returned with vigor and purpose, with resilience and longing, in search and in need in places like Minsk and Saint Petersburg, Prague and Budapest, Berlin and Warsaw, Kiev and Vienna. Renascent Jewish communities are growing with native-born Jews and other Jews moving back who yearn to reclaim Jewish life in its fullness.
Emma Lazarus suggested in her poem “Gifts” that while great nations have fallen by the wayside of history, we Jews yet endure. The Roman and Greek empires that conquered us have disappeared from the landscape. The pharaohs of Egypt that enslaved us are gone. The Inquisitors who tortured us have been damned. The power of the Cossacks…gone! Hitler…gone! Stalin…gone! And we the Jewish people glorified in her words: “Seek…[us] today, and find [us] in every land .” We survive! We live! We endure!
Not long ago, Miriam Novitch, an old and energetic woman and the founder of Lochemay-Ha-Gitaot, Israel’s ghetto-fighters museum, was showing a group of school children around the exhibits. She was asked by a young student about her wrenching and tortured history at the hands of the Nazis. “Don’t you want to get even? Aren’t you angry?” a student asked. Miriam answered quietly, “You, my children, are my revenge!&rquo;
The rebirth of Jewish life where once murderous regimes would have doomed us is our repudiation of evil. To paraphrase Emma Lazarus, our proclamation is, “No fire consumes us, neither floods devour us. Immortal we are with the lamp in our hand.”
The return of Jewish life to the former Soviet Union, not too long ago an abysmal Jewish wasteland, is nothing short of a miracle. Today we consider what our part is in nourishing this incredible venture of Jewish communal life on distant shores.
I confess that for too long, I resisted taking as my responsibility Jews in the FSU and around the world. Not under the threat of imminent destruction, which would always ignite our immediate support, I know they nevertheless are in dire need of our help.
So, I am reversing my own negligence. The time is now for us who are Reform Jews, members of this synagogue, to foster what Rabbi Eric Yoffie calls a “sense of mission and spirit of service to the Jewish people. We, too, in our own way, must provide teachers, Torah, and spiritual sustenance to Jews who require them.”
I propose that we turn our attention and energy to three different lands and bring the greatness and strength of Reform Jewish life to the FSU, Argentina, and Israel, each according to their need. We will work through the World Union for Progressive Judaism which has, for eighty years, been the lifeline for Reform Jews around the world.
We begin by acknowledging what already has been happening. The Ronald S. Lauder Foundation, in many ways and with incredible vision, has pioneered Jewish survival in Central and Eastern Europe. They supported schools and camps and community organizations.
And though I cannot support much of the Lubavitch ideology, I also point to Chabad for the work they have done in helping invigorate Jewish life in Eastern Europe.
It is now our time to declare ourselves. Jews in the FSU should have the same right we have to choose the manner of their Jewish practice and faith. But they will never know of the possibilities of Jewish life unless we are willing to support Reform/progressive Jewish life and community and give FSU Jews the chance to find us.
Nelly Shulman, now in her early thirties, grew up in Saint Petersburg before the fall of Communism, when religious practice was under the watchful eye of the state. As a child she was baffled by the practice of eating matzah on Pesach and was unclear about the meaning of the Magen David that her mother presented her when she was ten years old. As a college student in the early ’90s, Shulman plunged into her past, discovering and studying the history of Jews in Russia.
As part of her research, she happened upon a local synagogue and spotted an announcement for lectures on Jewish life. Given by a Chabad rabbi, Nelly felt that her questions were discouraged, but she was captivated by Jewish learning. In 1992, she spent a summer in Israel. She returned to Russia. Together with a friend, this young woman founded a progressive synagogue in Saint Petersburg.
Nelly became so deeply involved in the fledgling Reform/progressive movement, under the auspices of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, that, with the World Union’s support, she moved to London to study at the liberal Leo Baeck College. There, she was ordained a rabbi in 1999. She is now the director of community outreach for the Progressive Reform movement from her office in Moscow.
But this is the struggle. There are between seven hundred thousand and one million Jews in the FSU. Thirty thousand reside in Minsk alone. All but a few of those Jews know about us. Yet, including Nelly, there are only six reform rabbis attempting to serve a hundred congregations. There is not a single synagogue building housing any Reform congregation in any major city in the entire FSU because they do not have enough money to buy or build one.
The World Union is attempting to support an entire Reform youth movement, train paraprofessionals, fund the education of rabbis, organize synagogues, and encourage educational possibilities for potentially thousands of Jews on a budget of a paltry $1.3 million, compared to Chabad’s budget of over $30 million.
Independent surveys show that two and a half times more Jews in the FSU would prefer to live as Reform Jews than as Chabad or Orthodox. Without our help, there is no way the light, substance, and possibility of liberal Judaism can be brought to Jews in the FSU who would choose to live as liberal Jews as we have chosen to live as liberal Jews. We can make the difference!
It has already begun. Zhanna Zlotnick (no relation to our rabbi) first attended a Reform summer camp for young adults in 1994 when she was seventeen. She never knew that as a woman she had the right to bless the Torah. Nobody in her family had been called to the Torah for the past seventy years. So when her counselor asked whether she would like an aliyah, to bless the Torah, she refused. She said “I didn’t know a thing about it.” But her counselor encouraged her, “Please don’t worry, I will be there with you all the time.“ Finally Zhanna said, “I felt that I should go,” and added, “When I was on the bimah, I felt that this is mine, this is my home. I sensed a great warmth and security in being Jewish.”
So today I, with your collaboration, announce our support of the Jews of the FSU through the World Union with special attention to the Jews of Minsk through two different forms of participation.
First, as we continue to fund the visit of seminary students from HUC to the FSU, I propose tonight that we adopt and twin with a congregation in Belarus, that we communicate with the Jews in that community, that we share our educational and spiritual talent and resources with them, that we learn their stories, and that we bring the message and the needs of their rebirth to every home in this congregation. We will stir all our imaginations and become an instrument of survival supporting with our time and resources the Jews who are bearing the mantle of liberal Judaism in the FSU. Toward that end, we will be collecting chanukiyot, Shabbat candlesticks, dreidels and Purim groggers for congregations and Jewish families in the FSU. You can bring these ritual items any time to our offices/p>
Secondly, I announce that a year from now, after the High Holidays of 2005, we will visit the FSU as a congregation to enhance the fruit of our energy and to declare that we the descendants of those who fled before the atrocities in Eastern Europe have returned. We endure! Our destiny shines! We Jews survive!
Many of you remember that ten years ago, terrorists in Buenos Aires blew up the Argentine Jewish Mutual Association (known as the AMIA) killing eighty-five people. Until that time, this was the deadliest anti-Semitic incident anywhere since World War II.
Two years before, a car bomb detonated at the Israeli Embassy killed thirty. There were no convictions in the embassy bombing and with the acquittal this month of those on trial, there have been no convictions in the AMIA massacre.
Then in 1998, the economy of Argentina collapsed. Unemployment skyrocketed. The middle class evaporated. One leader observed, “Jewish owners of small businesses, who accounted for eighty percent of the Jewish workforce, have become the ‘new poor.’ Former Jewish bankers and manufacturers are…the ‘sudden poor.’ ”
Up to that point, Argentinean Jewish life had flourished. But now at least twenty-five percent of the nearly two hundred thousand Argentinean Jews are in need of emergency assistance to survive. There are thirty thousand Jews living under the poverty line and many others struggling on the edge. Rabbi Aaron Petuchowski, a wonderful colleague, returned from Argentina and wrote, “I was totally unprepared to encounter the reality faced by so many Jews in Buenos Aires. Formerly middle- and upper-middle-class Jewish individuals and families, who lived the lifestyle there that we live here, find their only meals through a network of soup kitchens that have opened up within the Jewish community. Three hundred people stay for dinner after the evening Shabbat service. Except for this synagogue dinner, they would not have had a meal.”
While our work with Jews in the FSU will support a reborn Jewish community, our attention to the Jews of Argentina will be to support a devastated Jewish community.
Our work there began last year when we learned from Phylis and Michael Bamberger about the economic catastrophe that struck the Jews of Cordoba. The children of our Religious School gathered funds to support Jewish children in that city. Our children believed that they had to take care of other children who suffer the financial loss of their parents and community. This year we will do more.
As we will do in the FSU in the fall of 2005, we plan also to go to Argentina this March to see the devastation for ourselves and to work with the community. We aim to develop relationships with members of the Argentinean community to determine future cooperative ventures and means of support. Again we will work through the World Union.
Toward that end, we have invited Rabbi David Gelfand, rabbi of the Jewish Center of the Hamptons, who has been involved with the Jews of Argentina, to speak and meet with us during and after Shabbat services on the evening of Friday, November 5. We urge all of you to attend. If at this time you imagine the possibility of traveling to Argentina with us in March or to the FSU next fall, please take a postcard when you leave and return it to us noting your interest.
In Argentina, through no fault of their own, there are Jews in desperate need. We constantly reach out to those who are hurting in our own city. Now, in the very best tradition of this congregation, we reach out to help those who, though out of sight, are very much in mind. They too, are ours. They need us. We will not forsake them!
And in Israel as well.
The World Union for Progressive Judaism has fought the battle of democracy and pluralism in Israel for decades. We know this story.
Rabbi Uri Regev, the brilliant, energetic, and visionary executive director of the World Union, has spoken before to our congregation and will do so again. Rabbi Regev regularly argued and often won cases on behalf of the Reform movement before Israel’s Supreme Court. Alas, winning court cases does not stop Israel’s religious establishment from blocking every legal advance. The need for our congregations in Israel is enormous.
At the Union for Reform Judaism biennial last December, President Rabbi Eric Yoffie called our attention to a particular congregation, Kehillat YOZMA in Modi’in. The congregation was described as “subsisting on a shoestring budget with no government support. And yet it has a thriving program that appeals to young, native-born Israelis. It offers a nursery school, youth activities, and adult education.”
Rabbi Kinneret Shiryon, a native New Yorker, was ordained from the New York campus of HUC–JIR in 1981. A while later, she made aliyah, and in 1997, as Israel’s first female rabbi, she became Kehillat YOZMA’s first and founding rabbi. We visited Rabbi Shiryon and the nursery school during a recent congregational trip.
Rabbi Shiryon is a remarkable rabbi very much in the model of Mattathias and his sons who battled the forces of oppression as told in the story of Chanukah. Mattathias’ family was also from Modi’in. Rabbi Shiryon, like our Chanukah heroes, is fearless, passionate, and determined. But there is only so much Rabbi Shiryon can do on her own. She cannot properly serve her congregation meeting in prefabricated trailers and living rooms. And the young families of her community cannot build the structures they require for worship, for schools, and for their youth movement.
So I propose that we join the members of Kehillat YOZMA, by literally joining them as overseas members of their congregation. We can plant our feet firmly in the Land of Israel. You can be a two-synagogue Jew: as a member of our own Central Synagogue, the congregation into which you have stepped foot, and also as a congregant of Kehillat YOZMA, the synagogue into which you haven’t set foot… quite yet. You can join Rabbi Shiryon’s congregation through a link on our website to Kehillat YOZMA.
When I communicated this idea to Rabbi Shiryon, she said any help would be enormous, but the needs in Israel are enormous. We have been engaged in the struggle there before, and our work through the World Union will continue. It will be a campaign of lobbying, of relationships, of support, and of aid.
So we set forth today upon a journey of renewal, revitalization, and rebirth. We will constantly be engaged in our own well-being and the well-being of our city and the nation, and we also lift our sight upon those Jews of other lands who sorely need us. We cannot turn away from them.
We will honor our immigrant forebears. Let us give testimony to our forebears’ actions and courage by nourishing the rekindling of Jewish life in places from which so many of them came.
We will bring Reform Judaism to the former Soviet Union.
And we will respond to our brothers and sisters struck by poverty in Argentina, for quite frankly, but for a fortuitous decision of our grandparents to come here, we could be those people.
And we vow again to nourish the movement of our colleagues in Israel who themselves yearn to live as Jews as we live as Jews, and who cannot do it alone.
I, personally, have committed myself to that task and I invite you to join me.
We have a message to take to Jews throughout this world. Let us fulfill our wondrous destiny. “Immortal we are with the lamp in our hand. Fire has not consumed us nor did floods devour us.” For that we are grateful.
May we passionately commit ourselves to the ongoing and miraculous venture of Jewish life. We have work to do so let us get on with it: with passion, with courage, and with the amazing energy that is the hallmark of this congregation.
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