It took a 30-page visa application to get him there, but in July Rabbi Dr. David J. Fine of Temple Israel and JCC of Ridgewood found himself sitting with a group of academics — most of them Israeli — at Moscow State University, at an academic conference about the relationship between Jewish and secular Israeli law. (That’s Moscow, as in Russia, not as in Idaho, by the way.)
He was at the conference less as Rabbi Fine than as Dr. Fine, in his capacity as professor at Abraham Geiger College, the rabbinical seminary at the University of Potsdam in Germany. “So there I was, in Moscow, an American rabbi, representing a German seminary at an Israeli conference in Russia,” he said. “It’s the kind of thing you really can’t make up.
“It was a conference of the Jewish Law Association, an international association for academics who teach Jewish law in an academic setting,” he continued. “Moscow State has been committed to increasing its Jewish studies offerings throughout the whole university. They’ve made efforts in other areas beyond this one.
“The conference was organized by the law school at the University of Tel Aviv, in conjunction with the law faculty at Moscow State. And by the way,” he added helpfully, “in Europe, school divisions are called faculties.”
The relationship between Israel and Russia is unlike the one between Russia and the United States, and that difference affects Israelis; so does geography. “It is very easy for Israelis to go to Russia,” Rabbi Fine said. “They don’t need a visa, it’s the same time zone, and it is both close and cheap.”
To get to Russia from the United States, on the other hand, it takes filling out a long, detailed questionnaire in order to get a visa; once you’ve gotten it, of course, the flight is long and expensive. That probably is why there were so few other American academics at this conference, Rabbi Fine said.
In its unlikely details, the conference also exhibited the connections that bind together Jewish life.
“There was a professor there, another American, who teaches at the University of Texas in Austin,” Rabbi Fine said. “I had never met him before, but I sat next to him at dinner at the new Jewish museum in Moscow. He grew up in Scarsdale — where I was the rabbi for seven years, before I came to Ridgewood. And we both went to Wesleyan; he graduated in the 70s and I graduated in the 90s, so we knew the same Jewish professors there, but I knew them from when they were about to retire and he knew them from when they were young.
“So there we were, talking about our small New England college in a museum in Moscow. It shows the connections of the Jewish world.”
Moscow State University is Russia’s Harvard, Rabbi Fine said, and its hosting a conference on Jewish law with Tel Aviv University is a big deal. The primary language was English, as is the case at most international conferences; the second language was Hebrew. Russian was a distant third, although there was some translation provided. “There was a way for Russian law students to participate,” Rabbi Fine said.
The conference was about mishpat Ivri — halacha, Israeli law, and values and concepts that flow from one to the other. “It’s the study of Jewish law through an academic lens as the cultural and legal heritage for Israeli law,” Rabbi Fine said. “There were times, when the state of Israel was being established, that people looked to the canons of Jewish law as precedent for Israeli law.
“The idea of Jewish law as a foundation for a secular system of law was first imagined 100 years ago by secular Zionists in Moscow. So the idea of the conference — its theme — was to go back to Moscow to celebrate 100 years of mishpat Ivri.
“After all the years of the Soviet Union, when Judaism was suppressed, when all religion was suppressed — to have a conference sponsored by Moscow State University, to have a celebration of Jewish law, makes a powerful statement in terms of the perseverance of Judaism, and of the future. Because there is still a future for Jewish life in Russia, even though demographers have never been able to tell us the number of Jews in Russia.” The challenge to demographers is made even stronger by the lack of a definition of who they should count as Jews. “But at least at the conference” — admittedly not a random sample — “I saw nobody who seemed to feel any stigma about Jewish identity,” he said.
After the conference, Rabbi Fine and his wife, Alla Fine, who was born in neighboring Ukraine, toured Russia. They found Saint Petersburg to be both jaw-droppingly beautiful and grotesquely ostentatious in its displays of outrageous wealth. “Everything there is done so intensely,” Rabbi Fine said. “It is overdramatic; the palaces are bigger than Buckingham Palace. Bigger than Versailles. There was such opulence and grandeur, and it was in everyone’s faces. You could see why the revolution started there.”
But as there always are, there were Jews with invitations. “We spent Shabbat at a Masorti congregation in Saint Petersburg,” Rabbi Fine said. (He is a Conservative rabbi; the movement is called Masorti outside North America.) “They had a dinner there, and I gave a speech. I said that when I was growing up, I went to a Schechter school in Queens, where one of my closest friends was Gary Shteyngart,” the writer. “He always said that he asked his parents why they moved from Saint Petersburg, which is so very beautiful, to Queens,” which, at least in Mr. Shteyngart’s telling, is not. “And Saint Petersburg was so very beautiful,” Rabbi Fine said.
Still, more importantly, “I came to Saint Petersburg with one friend,” Mr. Shteyngart, Rabbi Fine told the Russian Jews at Shabbat dinner. “I will leave with many friends here.”
Although he spends a great deal of time in Europe — the courses he teaches in Germany demand much travel — he found Russia different, Rabbi Fine said, and that’s because it’s the place where his ancestors lived, and where they left. “It felt different visiting the Czarist palaces,” he said.
“I am a fourth-generation American, but all of my family came from here. They were part of the Russian empire. Their taxes would have gone toward the building of these palaces. I found a stronger connection to it than I do to Buckingham Palace, or Versailles, or German palaces. I felt a connection not to the Russia of today, but to the Russia where those Jews lived.”