The Russians Are Coming: Israel’s New Crop of Reform Rabbis

As a child growing up in communist-ruled Russia, Olya Weinstein was never explicitly told she was Jewish. She somehow figured it out, though.

“In those days, it was forbidden to practice Judaism,” she recounts. “But I’d notice things at home, like that my mother never served us pork and that we had separate dishes for dairy and meat, and I’d ask questions. One day my mother broke down and told me we were Jewish, but for many years, try as I might, I never elicited much information beyond that.”

Binyamin Minich, who hails from the same part of the world, had the better fortune of coming of age after the communist regime had already collapsed. So by the time he was ready to celebrate his bar mitzvah in the eastern Crimean city of Kerch, together with a group of boys and girls his age, he had been so well trained at the local Reform congregation that he was asked to join the rabbi in leading the services.

Their Jewish journeys may have differed greatly, but Weinstein and Minich – both immigrants to Israel from the former Soviet Union — found themselves on the podium together last week at the Jerusalem branch of the Hebrew Union College: They had just been ordained as rabbis with the Reform movement in Israel.

Considering that there were seven newly ordained rabbis participating in the ceremony, this Russian-speaking contingent accounted for a notable share. In fact, with the ordination of Weinstein and Minich, the number of Russian-speaking Reform rabbis active in Israel effectively doubled overnight. (There are now five Reform rabbis in Israel who are immigrants from the former Soviet Union, but one recently retired, while four others who were ordained in Israel are stationed abroad.)

Olya Weinstein at her ordination ceremony at Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem, November 2019.KARIN MENDELSON

To be sure, these are not huge numbers, but they are noteworthy nonetheless — first, because Reform Judaism in Israel is largely an American transplant, with little history in the part of the world these rabbis come from; and second, because the Russian-speaking immigrant population of Israel is overwhelmingly secular, with much of its previous connection to Judaism erased during the communist years.

It is not a coincidence, says Rabbi Gilad Kariv, the executive director of the Reform movement in Israel, that Russian-speaking immigrants are drifting to this more open form of Judaism. “We, in the Reform movement here, took a decision a few years ago that bringing Russian-speaking immigrants into the fold would be a strategic goal,” he says. “We really believe that this new generation of Russian-speakers want to cultivate their own Israeli-Jewish-Russian identity, and we want to be there for them. Their parents, when they came here, were too preoccupied with just getting by in the country to think about their religious identity, but this younger generation, which has successfully established itself, is open to this sort of thing, and since — for very well-known reasons — they have lots of hard feelings toward Orthodox Judaism, we believe we can offer them a more desirable option.”