For Conservative Movement New Guard, It's All About Community

A new generation of rabbis presents a different role model - one focusing on neighborhood educational and social activities rather than prayer.

Michael Kogan will start the third career of his life next week - a rabbi in Israel. Kogan, 54, immigrated here 13 years ago. Among his previous jobs, he was an engineer at a plant in Russia and a theater director in a small town on the banks of the Volga River, west of Moscow. After arriving in Israel, he joined the Conservative Movement, and four years ago he began to study at the movement's rabbinical college, the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies (SIJS), in Jerusalem.

A small community of new immigrants from Russia has gathered around him in his hometown, Bat Yam. Kogan does not feel his latest vocation is such a sharp diversion from past endeavors. "Being a rabbi and a theater director are not so far apart," he says laughingly. "Acting has always been part of my life. For me this is the truth - life itself. I also experience my Judaism in a theatrical way."

This week, the SIJC will mark its 20th anniversary. The event will include an ordination ceremony for six graduate rabbis, two of them women. Kogan is one of the graduates and the oldest of the group. Another graduate is Uri Ayalon. Unlike Kogan, Ayalon is a second-generation member of the movement. However, both represent a new direction the movement is taking - one toward new communities. There are 60 Conservative synagogues in Israel (compared to 30 belonging to the Reform Movement), and the movement has ordained 60 rabbis.

Until he started rabbinical studies, Ayalon, 37, worked in various educational jobs, including the Conservative-affiliated Noam youth movement and the Movement for Progressive Judaism.

Ayalon, who works at the Beit Lazarus community center in the Jerusalem neighborhood Talpiot's lower-class area, represents a new rabbinical model - a community worker involved in the neighborhood's everyday life who is aware of its educational and cultural needs. For example, last year he initiated a tutoring project at Beit Lazarus in which 20 of the movement's young members from Israel and abroad help children with English and Hebrew homework. Once a week, the neighborhood's children are invited to a story hour, and before the holidays, residents are invited to a celebration sponsored by the Conservative Movement at the community center. The movement is planning to start a youth theater group together with the Beit Hinuch high school in the Katamon neighborhood as well as to open a library in the community center.

Ayalon describes his activity as no less than revolutionary. "This is not a network of classes that deals only with education," he says. "We are not mere service givers. I am trying to build a community network of mutual care and responsibility." He also speaks of the intimacy and the everyday ties he is forming, and of his availability to residents.

Ayalon did not win the Conservative Movement's support right away. He had to persuade its leaders of the importance of his approach, which does not focus on prayer. "When the prayer becomes the center, it dwarfs any attempt at any other activity and castrates the social dimension," Ayalon says. "The problem is that in our movement, when you say there won't be prayers, it's as though you have nothing to offer. But the movement's value system in social justice is very broad. Not every community has spiritual needs."

Is that an indirect way of recruiting new members? Ayalon says it is for an entirely spiritual purpose. "Judaism is seen as a series of rituals. But that is a narrow view, because Judaism touches people's everyday needs. Perhaps the group that gathers around us will want to pray together at a certain stage, but I don't have an inkling of desire to make people pray or believe because of me."

Ayalon belongs to a group of young rabbis and community center directors called Rikma. The group is led by a Conservative rabbi, David Lazar, who is also Ayalon's spiritual mentor. The group, which directs young rabbis to foster community interests and feelings, spurred Ayalon to establish the Yotzer Or organization, which deals with education and teaching. He started a Torah study group, whose members include neighborhood residents. In the last year and a half, after much debate, the organization has been accepted as a community project, and the Conservative Movement started funding some of its activity, Ayalon says.

"Yotzer Or rejects the central idea prevailing in the Israeli Conservative community for the past 30 years that the community is all about the central pillar of prayer. As far as I'm concerned, this does not exist," Ayalon says.

Ayalon believes Israelis are afraid of Jewish culture. The president of SIJS, Rabbi Professor David Golinkin, says that in recent years, the Conservative Movement has opened up to different directions and communities, primarily due to the new rabbis. A similar process is taking place in the United States, he says, where a new concept of a Jewish community center rabbi has developed. "The question is, of course, how to bring pluralistic Judaism to the general Israeli public. The founding members and I belong to the old immigrants' generation. Today's rabbis are more `sabras' (native Israelis) and understand the public's needs better than we do."

The father of the community

The Conservative Movement encompasses various forms of Judaism from complete commitment to halakha (Jewish law) to something similar to the Reform Movement. Kogan calls himself a traditionalist who is closer to modern Orthodox Judaism. Ayalon observes the Sabbath but appears closer in spirit to Reform Jews. Before starting rabbinical studies, he headed social involvement in the Reform Movement for three years. And when he is asked about the competition for Israelis' heart and the Reform Movement's influence on the process taking place in the Conservative Movement, he shifts uncomfortably in his chair.

Ayalon was born in Buenos Aires, one of the Conservative Movement's largest centers outside the United States. He immigrated to Israel as a child with his parents and attended a state religious school where he had to hide his Conservative affiliation. "It's not something that is spoken of, but you feel the boundaries yourself. You cannot mention at school what you do at home," he says.

After such bitter alienation, he enrolled in the secular Mae Boyar High School in Jerusalem and never hid his identity again, even though a few years ago he removed his skullcap in order not to be labeled in a society that "likes to label people."

Kogan, on the other hand, wears a large knitted skullcap. He was raised in a small town on the shore of the Black Sea, where Turks, Greeks, Christians, Muslims and Jews lived side by side. He was aware of being Jewish but had no contact with the religion. "In my childhood, when I used to beat someone up, I'd run away afterward to the synagogue. I knew no one would chase me into it," he says.

Once when he fled to the synagogue, the door was locked. "I remained at the threshold, not able to go back on to the street, since I was afraid of being caught, but I couldn't go inside either. To a certain extent, that's the way I am to this day, on the threshold. Not exactly inside my Judaism, but unable to leave it and be something else," he says.

Kogan moved closer to Judaism in the 1980s at the Jewish center established by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz in Moscow. He stayed there for a few months, left his work at the theater and decided to immigrate here. Once in Israel, he tried his hand in puppet theater, and worked as a stage hand and as a security guard at a museum. He became involved in the Conservative Movement by chance, after meeting the Italian mystic rabbi Roberto Arbib, head of Midreshet Iyun on Tel Aviv's Bograshov Street.

Kogan also studied tourism, and he still works as a tour guide. He is more than a traditional rabbi. He is both a father and spiritual adviser for his community, perhaps resembling a Christian minister. He brings people closer to Judaism because it is important to him that they believe and observe the Sabbath. That, to him, is the basis. In general, he thinks that everyone believes, but many have not reached the stage of revelation yet.

Ella Stromberg, 60, a member of his community, arrives every Saturday with her friends at the Bat Yam neighborhood's Orthodox synagogue. In the basement allocated to Kogan - apparently without knowledge that he is a Conservative rabbi - more than 20 people gather for services and kiddush followed by a study session.

Every Sunday, Stromberg attends a lesson on the Torah portion of the week at the same synagogue. She is filled with admiration when talking about Kogan's classes. "We are so pleased with him," she says. "He gives us everything, everything we did not know. Not only Torah. We came to Israel not as young people. We had a profession in Russia. Our whole life stayed behind in Russia. Here everything is new. He explains to us things we don't understand, for example, philosophy and politics. With Misha (Kogan's nickname), we feel something close. Like being at home. Like the dream we dreamed of Israel."

Kogan, the fourth Conservative rabbi of Russian origin, says the Russians will not go near an Orthodox synagogue. He brings the Russians closer to Judaism the old way, through classes and prayer. And he is succeeding. At home he is less successful. His wife converted to Judaism for him but does not share his faith and religious practice. And neither does his daughter, who has yet to convert.

Kogan is to leave his community soon for Dusseldorf, Germany, to serve as a rabbi in a mostly Russian community. The Orthodox rabbi there invited Kogan to try to win the hearts of the city's Russian Jews, a decision that Kogan realizes was not so easy. "He realized that the Russians will not enter an Orthodox synagogue," Kogan says. "I promised I would not compete with him but instead set up a Jewish studies school, because teaching Judaism is both an involvement and a commitment for me."