«Jewish Observer»
April 2002
5762 Nisan

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It looks as if Ukrainian Jews do not want to follow God's commandment "Propagate and disseminate" individually. They decided to do this through "collective membership" - by means of setting up new Jewish organizations and societies. This time we are going to speak about the Conservative Judaism Movement. The Movement is the least known in Ukraine but at present it is spreading its activity in Kiev. For ten years the country's religious life has been turning around reformist associations and orthodox congregations of both Lithuanian and Hassidic trends. But they seem to have forgotten about conservatives who are trying to harmonize the strict observance of the Law of the Torah with the realities of modern life.

To begin with, here are a few words about the ideological basis of the Conservative Judaism. There is a half-apocryphal story about a big reformist banquet of 1883 where they served shrimps (a typical example of non-kosher food). This caused a schism in the movement and gave rise to a conservative trend (though there were other ideological disagreements, too).

What is the difference between conservatives and reformists today? Where is "the red line" that separates one movement from the other? The answer is very simple. Reformists insist on the earthly origin of the Book of Books; unlike reformists, conservatives believe that God gave the Torah. This, as well as a strict observance of Kashout, makes them related with orthodoxy of various shades. That it is not considered shameful (after consulting a rabbi) to come to a synagogue by car on Saturday, to pray next to woman and even to let some of these women become rabbis. And this is fully in line with the reformist ideas of the ritual. This bipolarity is the evidence of both weakness and power of the conservative movement. Solomon Shehter, a world-wide known scholar, Cambridge University professor, the founder of the Jewish Theological Seminary (a major center of the conservative movement), once said in this connection: "In America one can't become a rabbi without knowing how to play baseball". For orthodox people it is a warning not to isolate themselves from the majority; for reformists it is a hint at the fact that a rabbi must know (and observe) much more things than a baseball-player. If one finds harmony, one will be able to restore national religious life without limiting it to ghetto. There were orthodox and even reformist Judaism centers in Western Ukraine. Unlike these trends the conservative movement has no root in this country. It is not just a lack of conservative synagogues (though we could consider getting them back); it is a lack of knowledge of a specific character of this trend of Judaism. At that the majority of American Jews belong to the conservative trend and that results in many different things. Many leaders of the WJC, WCO and other international Jewish organizations are conservatives. Nevertheless, only now foreign conservatives are becoming really active in Ukraine.

To be absolutely fair we have to admit a Jewish Sunday school and "Tahli"school - the strongholds of the county's conservatives - have been working in Chernovtsy for 10 years.

Over the last years schools (and communities) have been set up in Khust, Uzhgorod, Mukachevo, Berdichev, Prilucki. In fact, educational projects are a favorite subject of this trend of Judaism. Their communities usually spring from family schools where parents came with their children and sometimes with representatives of other generation.

A conservative school is a particular topic. Kiev has got used to a specific atmosphere where a teacher can be addressed only by the first name, to well-equipped computer classes and various circles. But all this is rather an exception than a rule for smaller towns where conservatives have settled down. However, the Sunday school "Armon" has been recently opened at Podol in Kiev and this is the first step in organizing Kiev conservative community - the first in the capital.

The new (for Ukraine) movement has two great advantages over other sub-confessions. The first is rational: it is a possibility to occupy the most balanced niche in the country's religious life, to follow "the middle path" Rambam spoke about. The second advantage is emotional-moral. It is not a secret that sooner or later bureaucracy of turns many religious organizations (which are meant to be the place of Spirit) into professional Jewish structure. Conservatives are, so to say, not engaged so far. Their Shabbats confirm this: people come and bring their bakery, different dishes ... It is not that they come to get a free piece of cake; they come to get spiritually united and to speak with the Lord. It is worth it. As well as seminars for mixed families, for children who are approaching the age of bar- and bat-mitsva, family weekends, summer camps rooms that are never closed, the headmaster's included.

This openness is rather symbolic. A meeting of religious authorities who do not try to "simplify" the law precedes every innovation in the ritual; they base their decisions on what is written in the Holy Scriptures. If combined with the respect for national and religious principles, this kind of openness may help the conservative movement take its niche in the Jewish life of Ukraine.

Rambat, a pillar of the medieval philosophy, wrote 800 years ago: "Any person that adheres to "middle" views can be called clever". So I pray to God that the time of these views may come as soon as possible.


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