Six members of our congregation and staff traveled to the Former Soviet Union (FSU) a few months ago. Francine Gelertner, Susan Loether, Anne Molloy (who chairs the World Union for Progressive Judaism’s FSU Committee), Janet Ocel, Henry Posner, and I visited our twin congregation, Congregation Hatikvah in Kiev. We also journeyed to Odessa to meet the members of another fledgling community, Congregation Emanu-El. Both congregations (as well as 27 others) are served by Rabbi Alexander Dukhovny, who is not only the Chief Reform Rabbi of Ukraine but also the only Reform Rabbi in Ukraine! Rabbi Dukhovy served as our vastly knowledgeable tour guide as well as our gracious host for our week-long visit. We were also accompanied by Alexander Kagan, FSU Director of the World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ), who was born in Belarus and now lives in Israel.
Our visit was wonderful in so many ways. It was overwhelming to think about and to see the remains of the vibrant Jewish life that has existed since the sixth century, before communism and the Holocaust all but destroyed it. Francine, a Holocaust survivor, felt as if she was reliving her childhood—the highs and the lows. It was awe-inspiring and humbling to witness the dedication of a few individuals who work tirelessly to bring Judaism and Jewish life back to the Jews in the FSU. It was remarkable to sing and pray and celebrate with members of the communities in Kiev and Odessa. I kept thinking that these people must be our cousins or our cousins’ cousins. We eat the same food, we have the same names, we sing the same prayers and songs with the same melodies; we have the same collective history. It was holy, truly.
Throughout our trip we met wonderfully dedicated people who do extraordinary work on a tight budget, although this does not adequately describe the dire financial situation of the Progressive Jewish community in the FSU. The Simchat Torah and Shabbat services we attended were creative and spiritually uplifting. Rabbi Dukhovny’s warmth and wisdom made it all joyful and meaningful. We paid visits to both Kiev preschools connected to the Hatikvah community— two amazing programs led by dedicated and creative teachers who bring Jewish traditions to life. Both groups treated us to musical presentations that were positively grand. The Sunday morning family program was packed with enthusiastic Jewish families working together on delightful art projects. We communicated largely through Rabbi Dukhovny, but our sign language skills helped us make fast friends with even the youngest congregants.
The main goal of the Progressive Movement in Ukraine is to spread the message of Progressive Judaism in every possible way both inside and outside the Movement. Under the leadership of Rabbi Dukhovny and a group of layleaders, the Progressive Movement has developed one of the most accessible streams of Judaism for post-Soviet Jewry. This gives everyone that identifies her/himself as a Jew an opportunity to obtain information and knowledge about their roots, traditions, and history. Rabbi Alexander Dukhovny was among those pioneers who started the Progressive Movement in Ukraine, which coincided with the fall of the Soviet Union and the development of democracy. When the first Kiev Reform congregation was founded in 1991, Alexander Dukhovny was among its first members. When he came back to Kiev after his studies in London, a new period in the development of the Progressive Movement in Ukraine had begun: the number of Progressive Jewish congregations multiplied, as Jews are, once again, discovering the beauty and blessings of Judaism.
I am so pleased to announce that Rabbi Dukhovny will be our guest for a few days in February after he attends the World Union Conference in San Francisco. He will deliver the sermon during our Erev Shabbat Service on Friday, February 18. I am sure you will find him to be interesting, wise, and delightful—as we did.
As we prepared to leave the FSU, it was the week of Parshat Noach. I offered that Rabbi Dukhovny and his associates are rebuilding the Jewish world after the “flood.” The damage to Jews and Judaism from the Holocaust and the Soviets was devastating. But the spirit of this small band of Jews is unparalleled. They are an inspiration, and we are blessed to have the leaders and members of Congregation Hatikvah as our twins.