Conservative movement sending 1st rabbi to FSU

New leader of Kiev congregation: Anti-Semitism in Ukraine at a low simmer, gays welcome in his synagogue.

Reuven Stamov_390 (photo credit: Courtesy Schecter Institute)
Reuven Stamov_390
(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.
Whereas Chabad 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 Stamov.
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 customs.
“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 said.
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 fear Jews.
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 rabbis.”
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.”