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.