How to become a liberal Europe rabbi

How to become a liberal Europe rabbi

Russian rabbinical student, intern at Temple Israel in Ridgewood, tells his story

Alexander Grodensky, left, with Rabbi David Fine in Ridgewood Johanna Resnick Rosen/Candid Eye

It’s a neat trick, but Alexander Grodensky pulls it off.

At just 32, he manages to be an entirely singular person, with a life that has taken a number of unpredictable turns, and at the same time a walking, breathing symbol of Jewish life in Europe today.

How’d he do it? And what does he symbolize?

Let’s start at the beginning.

Mr. Grodensky – who will become Rabbi Grodensky in August, when he is ordained by the Abraham Geiger College, part of the University of Potsdam – is in Ridgewood through the end of May. He’s here for a six-week stint shadowing Rabbi David Fine of Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center in Ridgewood. Rabbi Fine teaches at both Geiger and the new Zacharias Frankel College, also at the University of Potsdam.

Note that Abraham Geiger College, like its namesake, and like Mr. Grodensky, is Reform. Zacharias Frankel College, again like its namesake, and like Rabbi Fine, is Conservative. File that fact away for now. It’s part of the European side of the story.

Mr. Grodensky was born in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, in 1983, to parents whose own parents had fled to that Central Asian Soviet republic from Oshmyany, in what is now Belarus, during World War II, and had stayed there. His grandfather, an engineer, was in the Soviet military. His father, Boris, also an engineer by trade, was in the military as well; in 1990, when he was posted in the Soviet Republic of Komi, he took the family – Alexander, Alexander’s mother, Marina, and his sister, Evgenia – to live in its capital city, Syktyvkar.

Komi is in Russia’s far north, in Europe, west of the Ural Mountains. The Komi people’s language resembles Finnish, but not many people speak it; most people spoke Russian, Mr. Grodensky said. There was no anti-Semitism, but there also were very few Jews. Although many people who lived there were from elsewhere, and although “you speak the main language, still, you don’t belong to the regional affiliation. You always feel like an outsider.

“During my childhood, the only Jewish connection I had was through family,” he continued. “We were a typical Soviet Jewish family, with no religion at home. As a kid, I never went to synagogue.

“I felt Jewish, and since we were always outsiders – it was kind of in the air – I never felt completely Russian.”

A side story about Mr. Grodensky’s family – “it is very compact,” he reported. That’s because his mother’s mother and his father’s father both died when their children were young. When Mr. Grodensky’s parents married, their widowed parents met each other, fell in love, and married. “So I grew up with one set of grandparents, and we all had the same surname,” he said.

When Mr. Grodensky graduated from high school, “I used the first opportunity to get out of Komi,” he said. He went to university in the closest big city, St. Petersburg. The system is different there, he said; a university is far more like a trade school than a liberal arts college here, Rabbi Fine explained later. “We have a straightforward five-year program, and you graduate with a master’s,” Mr. Grodensky said.

He studied public administration and political science at school; out of school, acting out of a newly discovered hunger, he devoured Jewish learning and explored Jewish life.

“When I was in St. Petersburg, it was the first time I could feel Jewish,” he said. “I went to services. I joined Hillel. I had student jobs in the Jewish community. I started to work in a Jewish kindergarten, and then a rabbi from the community asked me to work with him as an assistant. I was a kind of liaison between the rabbi and the schools.”

Next, he took courses at a local yeshiva; eventually, he went to Israel for a year of study.

“These were very transformative years for me,” Mr. Grodensky said.

Why was he so drawn to Judaism? The extremely articulate Mr. Grodensky is uncharacteristically unable to explain it clearly, although he gives it a game try. “I guess it’s from a feeling that you’re always an outsider, but you don’t understand what kind of outsider you are,” he said. “In high school, I saw that although everyone was secular, they all had some kind of connection to their ethnic communities. But my connection to the Jewish people was basically only biological for me.

“It was kind of very shallow. I wanted to go deeper.”

So he did.

There was a bit more, of course. “I was attracted by tradition, by being part of something bigger than I am, by connecting to generations. And I know that my great grandmother and that generation were pretty traditional. For me, it was a restoration of the connection.”

The infrastructure of the Jewish community in St. Petersburg, and in much if not most of Russia, is Chabad. “It’s mainstream there,” Mr. Grodensky said. “Therefore, the rabbis try to be more open and accommodating. They are trying to fill the rabbinic role – not as a Chabad rabbi but as the rabbi of a city.” (And of course the concept of a city having a chief rabbi, as is true in so many places around the world, is foreign to Americans.)

“I didn’t go to the yeshiva full time – I had my own life in the university,” Mr. Grodensky said. “But I was observant. I kept kosher. I was shomer Shabbat. I was Orthodox.”

That was easy to do at school, he said. “Russia then was a new country. I didn’t have any problem being Jewish.” Americans’ assumptions that Russia was teeming with anti-Semitism are inaccurate, based on the experiences of people who left in the 1970s and ’80s, when it had been. “I didn’t really have any problems in my life with anti-Semitism,” he said. “Of course, I did grow up in a completely non-Jewish area, where nobody knew what Jewish even was. In my university, it just was not an issue.”

There was one thing that both attracted Mr. Grodensky to Chabad and kept him from becoming fully part of it. “I didn’t really think then that I was gay,” he said. “I wanted to escape gayness. I was naïve. I thought that I was attracted to men, but maybe it was just a phase, and with the right training and lifestyle I could have a regular Jewish family.

“But it didn’t work.

“The Orthodox community was quite comfortable. No one asked me any questions about why I wasn’t dating. We just all decided not to notice.”

It was during this time that Mr. Grodensky went to Israel to study at Shvut Ami, a “charedi Russian-speaking yeshiva. It’s Litvak, and I felt more connection to them intellectually than to Chabad.”

After he graduated from university in 2006, Mr. Grodensky had to decide what to do next. “It was a question of whether I should continue to work in the Jewish community, or I go for public service. And in Russia, the entry-level public service salary is so much less than the salary in the Jewish community. In Russia, if you work for the federal government, the salary is almost nothing, and in the provincial government it is a very little more than almost nothing.

“And the question also was whether I wanted to live in Russia anyway. Being Jewish, understanding that I am gay, I knew that I wanted to have a Jewish family – but with a man. There was no option in Russia.”

What to do?

He learned about a business school that the American philanthropist Ronald Lauder had founded in Vienna. “It is Jewish,” Mr. Grodensky said. It is a public school, funded by the Austrian government, so its admission department must be ethnicity blind, but “they did direct marketing only to the Jewish community, so it is about 90 percent Jewish. The other 10 percent is Austrians who want to learn English.”

(Mr. Grodensky’s own fluent, nearly flawless English had its genesis in high school; he has buffed and refined it ever since. He did not speak German then.)

“I already had cut my ties with Chabad, and when I got to Vienna I had a kind of religious crisis,” he said. “I didn’t have to be a professional Jew, so I could take my time, and find meaning. Being gay, and being analytical, I read books, history, philosophy, everything I could find. For certain amounts of time I wasn’t observant. I had to find my own way.

“I went to a Reform synagogue in Vienna, Or Chadash, a small community, basically bilingual. It was very difficult for me. It was very foreign to me. I felt like I was in a church at the beginning. I felt that it was not authentic.”

But both because he was gay and because he had developed real theological differences with Orthodox theology, including its position on the status of women, that world no longer was right for him either.

“Or Chadash was very small, and they needed people, so I thought that I will get involved and change things, make it more traditional,” he said. “It was difficult to change anything on Friday night, so I started having Shacharit on Shabbes morning. They had it once a month, but we started every Shabbes. It was fun, and I knew that I could go further.”

Mr. Grodensky finished business school, “and then I thought that actually this business stuff doesn’t interest me.” He worked in the Jewish community again, he taught Judaism in a pro-Israel Christian evangelical school, and “I started looking for rabbinical schools, he said.

He also met Isak Schneider, the communications consultant who now is his husband.

Mr. Schneider, who now is Jewish, comes from Vienna. “His mother is Danish; his father is half Persian and half Austrian, and the Austrian part is Jewish,” Mr. Grodensky said. “And his Christian background is both Catholic and Protestant.

“It is a very multicultural family,” he understated. “And that’s why his conversion to Judaism was much easier than it would have been had he come to it out of the blue.”

The two men had a civil ceremony in 2011, “but this summer, in July, we will have a chuppah in Vienna,” Mr. Grodensky said. “It will be the first gay chuppah ever in Vienna.”

It is an exciting time for Mr. Grodensky. He has a job waiting for him after ordination – a pulpit in Esch-Sur-Alzette, the second-biggest city in Luxembourg.

“I never had heard of it or thought of going there either,” he said. “I went there for an interview without ever thinking that I would take this position. It seemed completely strange. It is far away from anywhere, a tiny city in a tiny country.

“But the community is so nice, and I felt such a good energy there, the people seemed to like each other so much – and these are feelings you don’t usually see a lot in Germany. Here” – in the United States – “that is normal. Not there. So the fact that they were friendly was so very attractive.

“It is a beautiful country. And in Luxembourg, the clergy’s salary is paid by the state, if you are a registered community. It started with the Catholic church – but they cannot discriminate, so that expanded. I will get public servant status, with all the benefits and security that come with it. The community is beautiful.

“So I said why not?”

There is one obvious disadvantage – the country’s main language is French, which he does not speak. But he will be following a British rabbi; the community is bilingual and happy to use English.

Mr. Grodensky, who after all grew up in Komi, a place about which virtually none of us has heard, is going to another place that we’ve heard of but most likely know next to nothing about. “It is a country with almost no army,” he said. “It has 700 soldiers, and 49 of them are musicians.” It also has no wartime history about which it can feel proud. “It was occupied by Germany, and of course they collaborated. A report from a historians’ commission said that of course they could not really resist the Germans, but they didn’t even try. They had an order to hand over their Jews – and they did it.

“Many of the Jews escaped to France or Switzerland, but not everybody could escape. Now, 70 years after the war, the government made a declaration that it would accept responsibility and do some restitution.”

Luxembourg is also “the richest country, per capita, in the world,” he added.

There are two synagogues in the country; his, which used to be Orthodox and now is Reform, and the one in Luxembourg City, which used to be Reform and now is Orthodox. The synagogues, as elsewhere in Europe, do not have names; when it is necessary to give them one, they are called by the names of the streets where they stand.

Mr. Grodensky is a Reform Jew, but not in a way that is familiar to most American Reform Jews. He wears a kippah everywhere and he keeps kosher. “In Europe, Reform is very traditional,” he said. “We don’t have a clear-cut distinction between Reform and Conservative, because the movements are so weak there. In continental Europe, what we call Liberal Judaism is left-wing Conservative by American standards.

“We live in a post-denomination age.”

He is impressed by what he sees of Jewish life in New Jersey and New York. “It is more normal to be Jewish here,” he said. “In Europe, there was the interruption of the war. People who live in Germany now are not German Jews. It is like starting from scratch, and searching for identity. “Here, it is no big deal to be part of the community. I see that people are not terribly religious, but there is a sense that we are together. There is friendship in the community, and it’s not because everyone is against us.

“It’s because we are having fun together, and we want to help each other.”

Rabbi Fine agreed that European Jewish life is different than it is here. All the students in rabbinical school “have stories, and they are all new stories.

“It is a new Judaism that is developing there.

“In Europe, where the numbers are significantly smaller, they don’t have the luxury of drawing denominational lines, so basically the division there is just between Orthodoxy and liberal Judaism. Liberal Judaism encompasses Reform and Conservative, just as it did in the old days. It is only in this country that we have the division into two distinct institutional cultures.”

As for Mr. Grodensky, “Alexander is wonderful in the synagogue,” Rabbi Fine said. He is Temple Israel’s first intern, but Rabbi Fine hopes that he will not be the last; the relationship between European and American Jews can provide insight and knowledge to both. “American Judaism is one of the two great Jewish communities in the world,” he said. “It has its own unique aspects, and students should experience it. It will enrich their rabbinates and what they can offer the Jewish community in Europe.”

Mr. Grodensky’s husband, who spent a few weeks in this country, was given an aliyah on his last Shabbat. The men explained their plans, “and there was an overwhelming mazal tov,” Rabbi Fine said. “The whole congregation got on their feet. It was great for them to experience total joy from a congregation on the other side of the world.”

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