Growing up in St Petersburg, making aliya to Israel and living and studying in the United States have given Rabbi Irina Gritsevskaya the perfect background to reach students and families around the world as she takes the helm of Midreshet Yerushalayim, Schechter’s programs in Ukraine, and Midreshet Schechter, the network of Schechter beit midrash study groups throughout Israel.
Rabbi Gritsevskaya grew up in a Jewish home in St. Petersburg, Russia. Her family moved to Israel when she was seventeen years old and settled in Tel Aviv. She began her career as a lawyer earning a Bachelor in Law (LL.B.) from Hebrew University and Master in Law (LL.M) from Bar Ilan University. Eventually she wanted to connect more deeply to people. Rabbi Gritsevskaya was drawn to the rabbinate because of her deep love for the Jewish people, a thirst for knowledge, and a critical approach to texts that was familiar to her from legal study.
As an adult, she fell in love with American Judaism, which helped her discover Judaism that is open, inviting, inclusive, and colorful – a world of mitzvot without coercion, out of free choice. Rabbi Gritsevskaya began her rabbinical studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary but eventually realized that she wanted to be back “home in Israel.” She spent the last three years of her studies at Schechter. Her experience there was formative: “I was looking for a liberal Judaism that speaks to my heart and can be a common language I can share with others. At Schechter I met a wonderful cohort of future Rabbis, our social bonds and interaction were no less important than academic studies. I enjoyed my Halachah classes and Hasidut classes with Rabbi Mimi Feigelson. Schechter is a great institution that provided me with all the knowledge and skills I needed for my hopes and dreams.”
Following the retirement of Gila Katz, a longtime director of Midreshet Yerushalayim, Rabbi Gritsevskaya was chosen as a natural fit for the position. She is thrilled about her role as a “circuit rabbi” in Ukraine traveling to the different Schechter-supported communities there. This year she will be in Chernowitz for Yom Kippur, spend Sukkot in Kiev and the intermediate days of Sukkot in Kharkov. She is eager to connect with the communities in different cities and find ways to empower the leadership there in their own growth and learning. She will be providing support to the lay leadership and be a pastoral presence for the members, families and young people. Masorti/Conservative Judaism is really taking off in Ukraine: “Masorti is on the map there. We are looking to strengthen the communities and strengthen their ties to communities in the States and in Europe.” Rabbi Gritsevskaya’s unique background makes her particularly suited to this position: “I’m connected to the three worlds. I was born in Russia and have the language and cultural fluency. I studied in the U.S. and am familiar with American Judaism. And I’m Israeli – I live and studied here. It’s important for me that we draw connections between these three worlds. I know that it is not just Ukraine that will be enriched. Jews in North America and in Israel will gain immeasurably from the Jewish life and history and understanding their Jewish roots in Ukraine. Israeli, North American and Ukrainian Judaism can enrich each other.”
Since 1991, thousands of Jews in Ukraine have explored their connection to the Jewish people and Israel through Schechter’s Midreshet Yerushalayim camps, schools and synagogues. Established in 1992, it sponsors Zionist-Jewish education in Ukraine in partnership with Masorti Olami. Its programs reconnect Jews to their heritage in an inclusive and joyous atmosphere; synagogues, schools and summer camps stress Jewish tradition, history and peoplehood, and the centrality of Israel for the Jewish people. Local and national programs include: A Synagogue Center in Kiev; Synagogues/Educational Centers in Chernowitz and Odessa; Schools in Kharkov and Berdichev; Annual summer camps – Camp Ramah Yachad for children (11-16) and Ramah Family Camp for Young Families; and an Annual Teachers’ Seminar for educators from formal and informal frameworks.
Rabbi Gritsevskaya is following in the giant footsteps left by Gila Katz, who is retiring from the position after 28 years. Prior to making aliyah from Ukraine in 1995, Katz directed the TALI school in Chernowitz and the Ramah Ukraine Camp Program. Says Rabbi Gritsevskaya: “Gila is an amazing educator who spent many years building a foundation of young Jewish leadership. It is a life project. It is a great honor to take over the position from her and I hope to continue her legacy.”