(photo credit: Courtesy Schecter Institute)
When Rabbi Reuven Stamov arrives in Ukraine next March he might receive a mixed
reaction from local members of Conservative Judaism. While they are certain to
congratulate him on becoming the movement’s first rabbi in the former Soviet
Union, they might also be wondering what took him so long.
has an extensive network of emissaries in almost every midsized town in the
former Soviet Union, from Vladivostok in the east to Kaliningrad in the west,
and even Reform Judaism has a presence in big cities like Moscow and
St. Petersburg, the Conservative – or Masorti movement, as it is also
called – has lagged behind.
“The Masorti movement has been more focused
on education,” said Stamov on Tuesday, citing the community center, day schools
and summer camps in and around Kiev run by Midreshet Yerushalayim, a group
affiliated with his movement. “Also, I think maybe the Masorti movement
didn’t have someone who speaks the language like me.”
Indeed, the vast
majority of adherents of Conservative Judaism live in the US with smaller
communities in Argentina, the UK and Israel. It has relatively few
Russian-speaking members and fewer Russian-speaking rabbis like
The 38-year-old native of Ukraine said the journey which led him
to become an ordained Conservative rabbi was “coincidental.” He was born into an
assimilated Jewish family in Sebastopol which observed few if any religious
“My grandmother would bring matza once a year but we didn’t make
much of it,” he said.
He first took an interest in religion as an adult
when he joined the local Reform congregation in the late 1990s. Within a
few months he was leading the congregation’s prayers and in 2003 he made aliya.
In Israel, he was invited to speak at the Schechter Institute, the Conservative
movement’s education center in Jerusalem, and was surprised by how much he felt
at home there.
“It was the perfect place for me to study,” he
Over the past few years Stamov has studied hard to receive his
ordination from the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary. He hopes to bring the
knowledge he has acquired with him to Kiev where he said there are about 1,000
members of Conservative Judaism.
“We already have a minyan every
Shabbat,” he said.
On the issue of anti-Semitism, Stamov said hatred of
Jews in Ukraine was more of a low simmer than at boiling point. The best way of
battling such bigotry was by educating locals that they had no reason to hate or
Stamov preferred not to say whether he thought gays should be
ordained as rabbis, a sensitive question which has members of the Masorti
movement divided into two camps, but he said that he would welcome gay
congregants to his synagogue the same he would any other.
“The fact that
they don’t ordain gays at Schechter doesn’t mean that they are prejudiced
towards them,” he said. “In any case, I don’t ordain
Looking ahead, Stamov said he plans to spend the next couple of
years in his native Ukraine with his wife and two kids dedicated toward building
a vibrant Jewish community. But he does not think he will be there 10
years from now.
“Hopefully, I’ll be back here in Israel,” he said. “And I
would have brought the entire Jewish community of Kiev back with me.”