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From Russia with Torah

by: Abby Cohn - Last updated: 2003-11-06

Rabbi Nelly Shulman teaching

Teaching a class

As a child, Nelly Shulman knew she should eat matzah for Passover, so she did — along with her bread.

“I thought it was a weird Jewish custom,” said Shulman, who grew up in St. Petersburg before the collapse of the Soviet Union, a time that was hardly a heyday for open religious exploration and practice.

The 31-year-old Russian has taken a bit of a Jewish journey since then. For one thing, she’s now a rabbi.

And while she’s far better schooled these days on Jewish rites and rituals, her childhood confusion is perfectly understandable.

“I knew we were Jewish but I didn’t know what was expected of us,” Shulman confessed in a recent phone interview. She can count on two fingers the number of times she stepped into a synagogue before 1992.

Shulman, who speaks fluent English with a surprisingly crisp British accent, was ordained in 1999 at Leo Baeck College in London and now lives and works in Moscow.

She’s turned into a religious trailblazer in her homeland.

Shulman is the first Russian-born female rabbi and, so far, the only one practicing in the former Soviet Union.

“I feel like a pioneer,” says Shulman who recently went to the United States as part of a nationwide tour intended to raise money and awareness for the growth of Progressive — or what Americans consider Reform — Judaism in the former Soviet Union.

Recently named the director of development for Russia’s Union of Religious Organizations for Progressive Judaism, Shulman is working with 40 to 50 fledgling Reform-style congregations in the former Soviet Union. She’s helping to train teams of para-rabbinical lay leaders for those synagogues, and is working with youth groups and summer camps.

Her own religious story started with the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991. “It was suddenly very interesting and very challenging to suddenly discover what it was to be Jewish or [have] other ethnic origins,” she said. “Everyone started to be occupied in rediscovering their identity.”

Shulman grew up in a period when religious practice was under the careful watch of the communist state, according to Steve Bauman, a Los Altos Calaforinia resident who chairs a joint committee with the World Union for Progressive Judaism and ARZA/World Union that helped bring Shulman on the U.S. tour.

She figures her family may have had more Jewish connection than most in the 1970s because her mother, a pediatrician, studied Hebrew for a time in an underground group.

Still, as a child Shulman was baffled by the practice of eating matzah during Passover and likewise unclear about the meaning of the Star of David that her mother put around her neck when she was 10. The necklace had been presented to her mother by a group of visiting Americans.

As a college student in the early 1990s at St. Petersburg State University, Shulman plunged into her past. She started researching and writing a thesis on the history of Russian Jews in the 19th century.

One day she visited a local synagogue and spotted an announcement for a series of evening classes on Jewish life and festivals. Taught by an American Chabad rabbi to a group that included some non-English speakers, the program discouraged her questions and was “really horrible,” said Shulman.

Nevertheless, she remained intrigued.

Starting as an intellectual pursuit, her quest into Judaism eventually unfolded into something more spiritual. “I didn’t have this sudden spiritual revelation. I have to learn first.

“When all the pieces came together, I decided that this is so beautiful.”

In 1992, she spent a summer in Israel. When she returned to Russia, she was invited by a friend to help start a Reform-style congregation. “You know English,” the friend told her. “Come and be active.”

Shulman was attracted by a movement whose leader “doesn’t necessarily have to be male. The first thing that appealed to me [was] everyone was taking me seriously.”

At the newly formed Progressive congregation in St. Petersburg, Shulman attended retreats and study seminars and began a Sunday school program.

When she graduated from college in 1993, she traveled to Moscow to interview for the London-based rabbinical program. At the time, she was also considering making aliyah to Israel. Ultimately, the lure of further study won over.

“I really like to study,” said Shulman, who is one of just four Russians to have graduated from the program. “I was very motivated by what I was learning.”

In 1998, she was sent to Minsk, where she became an itinerant rabbi overseeing 14 congregations spread around Belarus. The Jewish community was strong there and “one of the few places in the former Soviet Union where people would still speak Yiddish fluently.”

With those older traditions came some gender bias. Shulman recalls being told by one Jewish leader that before her arrival the local council concluded, “well, a woman [rabbi] is better than nothing.”

“I tried to change this perspective,” she said. “I hope that I succeeded.”

This summer, Shulman moved with her husband and toddler son to Moscow, where she oversees Progressive congregations throughout the Russian federation.

With about 90 congregations, the movement is “becoming stronger and stronger every day.”

Young and middle-aged Russians “want to know what it is to be Jewish,” she said. “People want to learn more, they want to study more. A lot of young people want to be involved.”

First published in J. the Jewish news weekly of Northern California.
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Copyright 2003 - San Francisco Jewish Community Publications Inc.