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.

Young people are the most receptive to Ms. Shulman’s message, which is far less hierarchical than many expect to hear. “The rabbinate has changed since the 18th and 19th centuries,” she said in her cut-glass British English, tempered with a smoky Russian accent.

“We’re not gurus anymore, and when I teach kids about the Torah and Judaism I tell them I don’t want to be the final authority,” she continued, on morality and spiritual issues. “I want them to think for themselves, to use common sense and to know that they have freedom of choice in lots of parts of their lives.”

Drawing out adults has been harder. “Most Jews here have all been brought up or lived in intermarried families,” Ms. Shulman said. “It’s hard for them because they may feel they have to forget their husbands and wives” who aren’t Jewish. “We have to explain to them that they don’t have to do that.”

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.

She sometimes traveled hundreds of miles to remote towns. At a bar mitzvah in a village in Belarus, one elderly Jew told her he had not been to such a celebration since 1916, the year before the revolution. In another town, running a summer camp, she met her future husband. Together, they moved to Moscow last year and have a son, a toddler.

Ms. Shulman says that being a woman may actually have helped her career. “In other countries you go to a psychologist for advice, but people don’t do that here,” she said. “A lot of women in provincial places talk to me about issues like abortion, sexual harassment in the workplace, their families.”

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.

Ms. Shulman remembers when a university professor mocked her for choosing to write her thesis on Jewish communal life before 1917. She was one of only five Jews admitted under an informal quota in a department of 120 students, “so I couldn’t hide my identity.”

Nearly 15 years later, Ms. Shulman said, “things are much better.” However, dozens of graves were desecrated in a Jewish cemetery in St. Petersburg recently, and in the Siberian city of Irkutsk a synagogue was destroyed by a fire the authorities called accidental. “I don’t think so,” sniffed the rabbi.

To many Russians now, religion is not only a comfort but is becoming downright fashionable. Russian Orthodox churches are packed most weekends, Islam is growing rapidly and Jews have a choice of Orthodox, Conservative or Reform congregations.

Ms. Shulman makes her presence known in unusual ways. She is a founding member and rabbi here for the World Union for Progressive Judaism but still lighted candles and led services this past Hanukkah at the Jewish Community Center, where a dozen or so worship each Friday.

And on a recent Saturday, she led a service for deaf children, letting each child grasp the traditional shofar, or ram’s horn, as she blew. “They hear the shofar by touching it with their hands,” she said. “Isn’t that amazing?”


Related Articles

Archive Search

Search the world's largest online archive of material about Jewish diversity.

Archive Search

Search the world's largest online archive of material about Jewish diversity.