From Russia, with Love

When I was first getting involved in synagogue life, my rabbi had a cartoon pasted to the door of his study, showing a group of men sitting around a boardroom table –n those days, temple boards were all men — as the president of the congregation announces, “We have only two items on our agenda this evening, the leak in the men’s room ceiling and the future of American Judaism.”

When we talk about the future of American Judaism, a number of recurrent themes come immediately to mind -– building Jewish identity, developing a new generation of leaders, the differences between the generations, creating ties with worldwide Jewry and especially with Israel, and the place of Reform Judaism in the big picture

How interesting it was, therefore, to participate the other day in an international conference call of the Committee on the Former Soviet Union of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, and to hear a report from Rita Furman, the Netzer (Youth) Coordinator for the FSU, about a leadership seminar recently conducted at the Moscow Center for Progressive Judaism, and devoted to our exciting Reform camping programs in Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine. Possibly the most important message to emerge from Rita’s report was that the issues that confront American Judaism are equally if not more important in Eastern Europe, except that we have a lot more resources than they do for dealing with them.

Camping was the main focus of the seminar in Moscow, and key participants were two “loaners” from the URJ camping system, Rabbi Ron Klotz and Max Klaben, director and assistant director of our Goldman Union Camp-Institute in Zionsville, Indiana. Ron and Max led six sessions during the conference, three with supervisors and three with madrichim (youth counselors). These sessions explored topics like who is the ideal madrich, how to work in an informal setting, and what background leaders need to have in order to work effectively with campers.

In the course of last summer, almost 1000 campers spent a week each at Progressive movement camps in the FSU, funded by individual contributions from the more affluent sectors of the WUPJ as well as by congregational and Federation grants from many North American cities. Rabbi Klotz was joined at the program by two local rabbis, Alex Lyskovoy and Leonid Bimbat., which, Rita told us, added a very important spiritual component to the discussion and enlarged the scope of the questions madrichim could ask, beyond the logistics of camp operations. .

The Reform camp programs in the USA and FSU were discussed and compared at length. Ron and Max had brought a lot of material (written, video, pictures, etc.) to provide a very broad picture of how the GUCI camp operates. To the surprise of the locals (using local to encompass the three countries represented, Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus), and perhaps of the Americans too, despite such differences as the length of camp sessions and operating in a permanent venue like GUCI does as opposed to the rented camp facilities of the FSU, the topics of interest, the values that we wish to impart, and the goals we strive to attain both in the FSU and USA are very similar. Thus, Rita told us, the ties to and with their American counterparts were “immediately natural and very strong, as we spoke the same [religious, spiritual] language.”

Jewish identity was a particularly important issue, incorporated into all sessions. (My own rabbi, Andrea London, just returned from visiting our “twinned” congregation in Simferopol, Ukraine, and noted the “missing generation” — everyone she met, she reported, was either young or old, the middle generation having been kept from their Judaism during the Soviet era). Questions such as what it is to be a young Reform Jew today, how the active Jewish identity of the generation of the madrichim impacts both those younger than they and the older generation of their parents, were on the minds and the tongues of the madrichim, the young leadership cadre.

Given the cultural and economic divides, not all the issues that confront camps in North America and in the FSU are parallel. I’m told, for example, that one of the challenges facing camp directors at Union camps here, like our local gem OSRUI, is separating kids from their cell phones. Across the ocean, the issue is separating campers from their cigarettes! One of the outcomes of the Moscow training session is likely to be the prohibition of smoking at Netzer camps.

With all the similarities and all the differences of the two communities, it is generally acknowledged throughout American Judaism that Jewish camping programs are pivotal guarantors of our future – and how much more that is the case in the FSU, where Judaism is beginning to re-emerge after its forced hiatus, and where Progressive Judaism has to compete not only against secularism and apathy, but also against the aggressive outreach of open-handed, closed-minded Chabad. We have to fix a leak a whole lot more serious than the one in the men’s room ceiling; we have to bring kids into a spiritual and cultural worldview that will enable them to reclaim their birthright as modern Jews while fitting into their local societies as whole people. And the only way to fix that leak is with funding.

I was exhilarated by the WUPJ conference call where folks sitting in Moscow, Jerusalem, London, San Juan, Acapulco, and across the U.S.A. shared their thoughts on building Progressive Judaism, and Progressive Jews, in the FSU. It’s good to know that Barbara, my wife, sits on the Kiev Kehilla of our Chicago Jewish Federation and encourages the Federation to make a generous annual contribution to our Progressive camps in Ukraine. We’re proud to number among our friends people like Anne Molloy and Henry Posner of Pittsburg and Sue and Jimmy Klau of San Juan who contribute munificently to the Reform movement’s work in the FSU.

If I needed to point to one episode that triggered my own involvement in the support of Progressive Judaism, it would be an August Shabbat lunch at a camp facility outside of Moscow, where we met with Jews from all across Russia, who had gathered for a training session on how to conduct High Holy Day services in their rabbi-less communities. Rabbi Joel Oseran, who leads international development for the World Union, asked a youngish physician from Siberia what he was trying to find through his involvement with Progressive Judaism – and the doctor’s spontaneous reply was, “I think I am trying to find myself.”

So many of us Reform Jews in North America trace our own roots to the former Soviet Union – my mother’s family came from Belarus and my father’s from Kiev – and it behooves us to remember that the kids who are enriched by their experiences at Netzer camps are our cousins. When we help them find themselves as Jews, we help ourselves to do the same, linking the future of American Judaism to that of Eastern European Judaism. Ken yirbu – may this only increase.


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One Response to “From Russia, with Love”

  1. Alan Warshaw Says:

    This report is beautiful… so articulate, so personal, and so focused. You really “get it”. Thank you.

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