Moment is publishing regular updates from Helen, a Soviet American Jew living in Kyiv. Read all the diary entries here.
For Shavuot, I visited Masoret Synagogue in the Podil district of Kyiv. The rabbi, Reuven Stamov, impressed me with his intelligence and sense of humor. He was down to earth despite the war.
He was born in Simferopol, Crimea, an area of Ukraine now occupied by Russia, and arrived in Kyiv from Israel ten years ago, becoming the first Masorti (Conservative) rabbi in the former Soviet Union. The synagogue’s name, Masoret, means “tradition.” Conservative Judaism is very popular in the USA, yet Stamov Reuven, 48, is the only rabbi serving the five Conservative congregations in Ukraine: Kyiv, Odessa, Dnipro, Kharkiv, and Chernivtsi. Before the war, he was always on the road visiting the other communities. There is only one Conservative congregation among the ten synagogues in Kyiv (six of the ten are located in a rather small district of Podil). However, according to Stamov, 90 percent of the small population of Jews in Kyiv don’t belong to any congregation, and many are agnostics or atheists.
The entrance to the year-old Masorti community education center is unassuming, without any religious indications. The settings are contemporary, resembling a modern open-space office rather than a place of worship. For Shavuot, there were around 20 people, young professionals, some with their children, all friendly and approachable. The atmosphere was amicable and unconventionally relaxing. That was and is Stamov’s Reuven’s major goal: to create an atmosphere where like-minded Jewish people feel comfortable and united. He is confident, based on his own experience, that this is the way to not only revive Jewish traditions lost in Soviet-era Ukraine with younger generations, but also make the congregation grow.
The Masoret congregation has an interesting Torah story. During the Kyiv pogroms of 1905— witnessed by a seven-year-old Golda Meir, also a Kyiv native, and later recounted in her memoir—many Jews fled to Argentina. One synagogue’s Torah scroll discreetly and laboriously made its way from Kyiv to Argentina with a family of Jewish escapees. The descendants of this family emigrated to the United States and settled in Chicago. The next generation brought the Torah to Jerusalem. A family named Tobin acquired the Torah from a Jerusalem synagogue and presented it to Rabbi Stamov’s Kyiv congregation. Given that the text is written on leather with non-synthetic ink, some parts had been ruined by the scroll’s travels and the passage of time. The scroll underwent restoration in Jerusalem with support from, among others, David Golinkin, president of the Schechter Institute. Stamov personally brought it to Kyiv six years ago, just over a century after it was rescued. This story might have special meaning on a holiday commemorating when Jews received the Torah from God on Mount Sinai.
The synagogue is usually a hub of festivals and programs for Jews and non-Jews alike. Stamov told me that when the war broke out, everything changed. It felt as if the world turned upside down. “Our number one priority in the first days of the war was to organize the relocation of people to various safety zones away from direct shelling, and at the time people were in a panic that Kyiv as the capital would be occupied in days and would fall,” he said. Stamov himself went to Israel with his family for safety when the war broke out. “Our goal was to keep people safe and united in their faith.”
Stamov says that since most of his congregation left Kyiv for refuge abroad or in Western Ukraine, they switched to Zoom for their educational programs, organized member support groups, and even engaged professionals to provide virtual therapy sessions.
Stamov returned to Kyiv for Shavuot to reconnect with his parishioners, many of whom also came back from refuge for the celebrations. He says that because Russia manipulates information about antisemitism in Ukraine, it is very important for American Jews to widely and openly speak about their support for the Ukrainian Jewish community in order to prevent the spread of antisemitic propaganda from Russia. Stamov expressed the community’s gratitude to the West for its ongoing support and the warnings about the forthcoming war—the Conservative movement in the United States, Canada, Australia, and Europe all have supported Masoret through this time.
“For those who stayed, we organized humanitarian help: food, medicine, and in many cases financial aid,” he told me at Shavuot. “And we are actively involved in helping our members settle at their new locations. Now we are trying to organize summer camps for children and adults in Romania and Germany, where most of our members still remain.”