A Personal Miracle: The First Masorti Rabbi in Ukraine
by Rabbi Tzvi Graetz
Jewish life in Ukraine
has changed and grown tremendously
since the end of the Soviet
era. One of the biggest changes was
inaugurated in March 2012, when
the first Conservative/Masorti
rabbi took up a permanent post in Kiev.
The story of Rabbi Reuven Stamov (his
first name originally was Roma) and his long
journey back to Ukraine is nothing short of
miraculous. Reuven was born in Simferopol
in Crimea – a region of Ukraine – in 1974.
His family was Jewish but entirely secular.
He was teased at school for being a
Jew, but during his childhood he never really
had the opportunity to explore what that
meant. As the Soviet period came to an end,
many Ukrainian Jewish families left, relocating
to Israel or other places. The Stamovs
decided to stay in Ukraine, however, and at
18 Reuven became involved for the first time
in Jewish educational activities. He began
to understand the purpose and rituals of the
festivals, gained a rudimentary understanding
of Hebrew, and developed a passion
for Masorti Judaism.
Throughout the 1990s, Reuven’s commitment
to Judaism, the Jewish community,
and Jewish and Zionist education grew
as he became involved in the Ramah summer
camp in Ukraine operated by Midreshet
Yerushalayim. A division of the Schechter
Institute for Jewish Studies, Midreshet
Yerushalayim focuses on Russian-speaking
Jews in Israel and parts of the former
Soviet Union. Camp Ramah-Yachad gave
Reuven a religious home, a place where
he could grow as a Jewish communal leader,
teaching campers about Masorti Judaism
and developing his own knowledge and practice
at the same time.
Reuven says that he began to want a more
spiritual, meaningful, and observant Jewish
life from his very first Camp Ramah experience.
This eventually led him to move
to Israel in 2003, and shortly afterward he
came to the logical conclusion that his destiny
was to become a Masorti rabbi. That
would allow him to share with others his
love and understanding of a Judaism that
was traditional and modern, spiritual and
intellectual, and committed to both Israel
and the diaspora.
Reuven studied at the Schechter Rabbinical
Seminary in Jerusalem for nearly
seven years, receiving support from Masorti
Olami, the worldwide Masorti movement,
via the Schorsch Fellowship, which supports
rabbinical students committed to working
in developing Masorti communities
in Europe. During his studies he continued
to work with Midreshet Yerushalayim in
partnership with Masorti Olami. He traveled
to Ukraine several times each year to
run seminars, summer camp, and a successful
conversion program, as well as many
other projects that created the foundation for a vibrant Masorti movement in Ukraine.
Reuven met his wife, Lena, in 2004 on
one of those trips. The couple now has
two daughters, Miriam and Alisia.
Reuven’s path to the rabbinate was not an
easy one. His studies were intensive,
demanding, and all in Hebrew – most of his
colleagues in rabbinical school were native
Hebrew speakers. He combined the usual
academic disciplines of Jewish history, Talmud,
halachah, and Mishnah with his regular
visits to Ukraine.
Reuven feels that completing rabbinical
school and achieving his goal of becoming
the spiritual and community leader he
dreamed of being is a personal miracle,
driven by his own connection with God.
Reuven is charismatic, approachable, and
lovable. He is bright, warm, and charming,
and clearly he understands the challenges
of developing Jewish life in his home country.
Throughout his studies he never forgot
that his purpose was to share his passion
for Judaism with other Ukrainian Jews.
In a moving address at his ordination ceremony
in February, Reuven told the assembled
guests – faculty, staff, family, and friends
– that the week’s Torah reading, Beshallach,
recounted the miracle of the parting of the
Red Sea. He drew a parallel between this
miracle and the miracle in his own life. In
his view, both the Israelites crossing the Red
Sea and his developing an entirely new Jewish
identity required support and cooperation
from many people, a belief and
commitment to God, and of course God’s
involvement to complete the action. Reuven
is one of only a handful of Ukrainian Jews,
beginning with little or no understanding of Judaism, who have been inspired to educate
others about Judaism. In his ordination
address, he also explained that Beshallach
is in the book of Shemot, the book that we
call Exodus but whose name literally translates
to Names. The list of names of those
people who have helped him academically,
spiritually, and even financially is incredibly
long, but he could not have reached
his goal without each of them.
Reuven acknowledges that now that he
has completed one challenge, another has
opened up as he tries to bring Masorti
Judaism to the estimated 100,000 Jews who
live in Ukraine. For the last 20 years,
Midreshet Yerushalayim and Masorti Olami
have worked to create a base of supporters
and a core of Masorti communities in
Kiev, Chernovitz, Donetsk, Kharkov, and
other cities around the country. The work
of developing committed, passionate, and
stable kehillot with ongoing Jewish lifecycle
and calendar programming still is to
come. We are sure that his determination,
along with a little help from God, will enable
Reuven to meet these challenges.
Should you visit Kiev or other cities in
Ukraine, we invite you to spend Shabbat or
a festival with a Masorti community and see
just how well things are going.
Rabbi Tzvi Graetz is a graduate of the
Schechter Rabbinical Seminary in Jerusalem
and the executive director of Masorti Olami
and Mercaz Olami.