When Rabbi Loraine Heller began her service as a Peace Corps volunteer in Ukraine, she asked the organization to place her in a city with a Jewish community.
A US Reform rabbi who came to Ukraine in December to teach English at a local technical college, she found in this central Ukrainian industrial city an established Reform congregation that had almost everything it needed, except for one thing: a rabbi.
In all of the former Soviet Union, some 70 Reform - or progressive as they are known here - congregations are served by only six ordained rabbis.
No wonder the local congregation gave her a warm welcome, and she has led Shabbat and holiday services since then.
Thanks to Heller, "we began to feel more like a religious congregation," Emma Spektor, the chairwoman of the Kirovograd Progressive Jewish congregation said, while pointing out that like elsewhere in the region, most members of her community are secular Jews with little knowledge of Judaism.
Not only is she the first Reform rabbi to lead weekly services in the Kirovograd progressive congregation, most of her congregants have never seen a female rabbi before.
"Some of our men were shocked at first, but now they fully accept her as a rabbi," Spektor said. "And our women liked her instantly."
A native of Los Angeles, Heller, 53, received her degree in linguistics from UCLA, was ordained at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and for 15 years held a rabbinical position with a small Reform congregation in Bradford, Pennsylvania.
As she only recently began to study Russian and Ukrainian, she usually leads services in English and Hebrew, often with an interpreter by her side.
She tries to add more Russian in her services, and the congregation is following her using their Russian prayer books with transliterated Hebrew. But Heller, whose family roots are in Ukraine, did not expect today's Ukrainian Jews to have drifted so far away from Judaism.
"It was strange to me to meet Jews here without any Yiddish," said Heller. "When I say 'Gut Shabbas' or 'Gut Yontif' or 'A Gute Voch,' people here usually do not understand me," she said. "In America, many Jews understand these words, and I keep wondering why Yiddish disappeared from Ukraine."
The Kirovograd congregation was formed in 1996 and today has some 250 members in a community of 260,000 with a Jewish population of about 900.
Like elsewhere in Ukraine, the community is overwhelmingly old and secular.
Heller said about 15 people attend her weekly services on Friday nights - which may seem like a bitter irony for a community that before the Bolshevik Revolution had 14 synagogues.
The only remaining synagogue in Kirovograd is the historic Great Choral Synagogue. Built in 1853 and confiscated by the Soviet government in the 1920s, it was returned in 1991 to the city's Reform community, which at that time was the only organized Jewish body. A struggle for control later ensued with the city's Chabad community, and today both groups share the building. The Reform congregation holds egalitarian services upstairs, and Chabad runs Orthodox services in the main sanctuary.
Chabad's Rabbi Dan Zakuta said his group has no contact with the American rabbi, nor with her congregation.
But the two congregations seem to have reached some sort of diplomatic entente.
"We do not want any scandals, so we usually pray on the second floor and they pray in the main hall," Spektor said.
Heller, who plans to stay in Kirovograd until the end of next year, says as much as she enjoys being part of her new congregation, she at times finds her cultural journey to be quite complex and at times confusing.
"I'm living in Ukrainian culture and in Ukrainian Jewish culture, and it's quite difficult for me," said Heller, who is unmarried.
Even food can be a difficulty. Sweet red wine and challah, which is called "pletenka" in Ukraine, are eaten by Jews in Ukraine as in the United States, she said. Yet, she said much of what would be considered staple food of an American Jewish diet is nowhere to be seen in her Ukrainian community.
"In America, we serve matza ball soup during Passover. I haven't seen a matza ball in Ukraine," she said.
At least she's discovered quite a few similarities between her home congregation and the one in Ukraine: "In both cultures, people ask the same question during the service: What page are we on? This seems to be universal."
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