By Rabbi Prof. David Golinkin, President, The Schechter Institutes, Inc. and Board Chair, Midreshet Schechter
I have been to Ukraine four times since 2007. Each time, as I taught the local children and adults in Hebrew, I felt that I was experiencing the prophecy of Ezekiel 37, the Valley of the Dry Bones. For over 70 years, the Jews of the Soviet Union were oppressed and repressed; they were spiritually dead. Now they have come back to life. They are returning to Judaism and Zionism in droves, and many of them have made aliyah. Indeed, as families make aliyah, they are replaced by other families who want to learn about Judaism.
The story begins in 1991, shortly after the Iron Curtain fell. The leaders of the Schechter Institutes in Jerusalem started to run Jewish education programs in Ukraine under the auspices of Midreshet Yerushalayim. Our feeling then was that we should do whatever we can to help the Jews of the former Soviet Union return to Judaism after over 70 years of Soviet oppression.
Over the course of many years, we founded schools and synagogues and Ramah Camps throughout Ukraine.
In the early years, Masorti Olami helped us in a low-key fashion. Since 2012, when we sent Rabbi Reuven and Lena Stamov as our first shlichim (emissaries) to Kiev, Masorti Olami became our partner and co-sponsor of Kehillat Masoret in Kiev. It also runs the NOAM Ukraine youth groups and helps us run other important programs.
Midreshet Yerushalayim also runs Kehillat Aviv in Chernowitz, a family education center in Berdichev, a new thriving community in Odessa, an excellent day school in Kharkov and a Hebrew school in Uzhgorod.
As for camps, we run Camp Ramah Yachad about to celebrate its 26th season, the Ramah Family Camp, the NOAM winter camp, and the annual teachers’ training seminar.
From May 8-10, 2018, I traveled to Kiev together with Rabbi Mauricio Balter, Director General of Masorti Olami, and Ms. Gila Katz, founding Director of Camp Ramah Yachad Ukraine and Pedagogic Supervisor of Midreshet Yerushalayim, Ukraine. Gila is an amazing educator who has raised an entire generation of committed Ukrainian Jews, many of whom have made aliyah.
We held 3 days of intensive meetings with: Rabbi Reuven Stamov, the Midreshet Yerushalayim / Masorti Olami shaliach in Ukraine; Lena Stamov, Director of NOAM Ukraine; Lev Kleiman, Coordinator of Kehillat Aviv, Chernowitz; Lena Grebelnaya, Coordinator of NOAM, Chernowitz; Ze’ev Vaksman, Coordinator of Kehillat Tiferet, Odessa; and Paulina Greenberg, Coordinator of Midreshet Yerushalayim, Berdichev.
We also met with heads of 12 different Jewish organizations in Kiev/Ukraine and with a large group of members of Kehillat Masoret in Kiev. The leaders of the organizations and the members of the Kehillah were incredibly grateful for the work of Rabbi Reuven and Lena Stamov in Kiev.
The visit was very productive, leading to better coordination of all our activities in Ukraine.
One last vignette: our kehillah in Kiev is located in a rented storefront. A few of the members of the kehillah told us that we MUST build our own synagogue building in Kiev! Gila Katz then said: “We need to show that we are serious!” She took a box and put in some hryvnia bills. We passed around the box and everyone put in some money. I don’t know if we will ever build a synagogue building in Kiev, but I do know that Ezekiel’s prophecy has come to pass in Kiev, Chernowitz, Odessa and throughout Ukraine. The bones have come to life. The Jews of Ukraine are building schools and synagogues and camps, and many are making aliyah. Am Yisrael Chai! The Jewish People Lives!
By Rabbi Mauricio Balter, Executive Director Masorti Olami and MERCAZ Olami
This past month I had the unique opportunity to travel to Kiev to see the wealth of Jewish life that exists there and plan the founding of Masorti Ukraine along with Rabbi Prof. David Golinkin, President of The Schechter Institutes Inc. and Gila Katz, Director of Midreshet Yerushalayim-Schechter’s educational programs in Eastern Europe.When looking at the extent of Masorti Jewish life in Kiev, one cannot overemphasize the amazing work that our shlichim—Rabbi Reuven and Lena Stamov have done in establishing a thriving Masorti Jewish community in a country where religion was banned by the communist authorities just a mere thirty years ago.
The enthusiasm of the Masoret community was demonstrated by their turnout to mark our visit. On the night of our arrival the shul was packed to the brim and anyone who did not arrive early had to remain standing. Over 140 people crammed into the space to have the opportunity to meet the movement’s international leadership and plan the community’s future along with them. The outpouring of enthusiasm from the community exceeded my expectations with the crowd comprised not only of members of the Masorti community itself, but also had representatives from other leading Jewish organizations in Kiev, including Nativ, Hillel, Moishe House, and the Jewish Agency in attendance. It was amazing to see how entwined our Masorti Community in Ukraine has become in the fabric of the wider Jewish community, and the extent of collaborations taking place, with Lena and Rabbi Reuven in constant dialogue with other community leaders and carrying out activities in conjunction with their partners.
Not only did we meet the parties active in Masorti Jewish life within Kiev, but we also heard from the wider Masorti community around Ukraine. This gave us a picture of the state of affairs across the country and let us see firsthand the work they are doing and the enthusiasm that they display. Among the people we met in Kiev were Lev Klaiman of Kehillat Aviv in Chernowitz and Lena Grebelnaya, the Kehillah’s NOAM director. We witnessed the amazing work that they have been doing in their community, particularly in partnership with Schechter’s own Gila Katz. In addition to meeting their leaders, we met with the community from Chernowitz via videoconference. What was the most special for me about that meeting was the strong youth presence among the group—it seemed to me that most of them were in the 15-18 range, which filled me with hope to see the community’s future leaders already taking such an active role. One of the most impressive items they showed me was their book, “Shemesh” which was created by their youth group and is a treasury of illustrated Jewish folk tales, all narrated and illustrated by youth from the Chernowitz community. We were also entertained by a series of adorable claymation videos they produced to tell Jewish folk tales and explain the rituals of the Jewish wedding ceremony to children, as well as an old-fashioned silent film on Lag BaOmer.
In addition to the communities in Kiev and Chernowitz, we also met with Zev Vaksman of Kehillat Tiferet in Odessa who told us about the activities they do in honor of Israel and the Jewish holidays assisted by visits from Rabbi Stamov. We also spoke with Paulina Greenberg of Midreshet Yerushalayim, Berditchev who gave us a fuller picture of the impressive array of activities carried out even by the small Masorti community there.
One of the main successes of the trip were the series of meetings conducted between the leaders of the Ukrainian communities and the visiting contingent from Masorti Olami and the Schechter Institutes. During this visit we collaborated to plan the framework for the creation of a new organization—Masorti Ukraine and to create a clear division of responsibilities within the new organization.
In addition to our meetings, Lena Stamov, Masoret Kiev’s director of education treated us to a welcome break our intensive schedule with a walking tour of Kiev’s Podol neighborhood. We learned of the vast Jewish history in Kiev, from its beginnings in the middle ages through its darkest hour at the Babi Yar massacre and its rebirth following the fall of the Soviet Union, with special emphasis on the Jewish luminaries that the city produced, from Sholom Aleichem to Golda Meir. It helped put our trip in perspective and gave us an appreciation for the history of the city, what has come before, and the Jewish tradition that the Masorti movement is carrying on in Ukraine.
The Masoret Kiev community will have the distinct honor of hosting Masorti Europe’s 2018 board meeting this June and I have no doubt that our lay leaders from across Europe will be duly impressed by the community’s growth, commitment and outreach. I, for one, am eagerly looking forward to returning to Kiev and having the opportunity to visit Odessa, as well as to witnessing the continued growth of Masorti Ukraine.