This article orginally appeared in the New North London Synagogue Bulletin
Think of Ukraine and one thinks of great names in Jewish history, Bialik, Jabotinsky, Sholem Aleichem, the Baal Shem Tov, Golda Meir to take but a few at random. Here were the roots of both Zionism and Chasidism. But, think of Ukraine and one also thinks of persecution, pogroms, slaughter and anti-semitism. However, systematic attempts by the Nazis and the Soviet Union over more than 75 years failed to eliminate the Jewish people and Judaism from the area and in the last 20 years valiant and heroic efforts to revive Jewish interest and Jewish life have gradually born fruit. Some of this comes from Masorti initiatives, not least from the sustained work of two dedicated and dynamic people, Margie Tutnauer and her late husband Rabbi Moshe Tutnauer, in first sowing the seeds of revival and then nurturing it so that now there are Masorti communities in Kiev, Chernovitz, Donetsk, Kharkov, Simferopol and other cities across the country. Something to be celebrated and marked.
Thus it was that in July five NNLS members, Gill and Eddie Caplin, Hazel Stein and Sue and Richard Gold, joined Masorti Olami – the worldwide Masorti organisation – on its mission to Ukraine led by Rabbi Chaim Weiner as Scholar in Residence. We visited Odessa, Kiev, Zhytomyr and Berdichev but the focal point of the trip was the installation in Kiev of Rabbi Reuven Stamov as the first ever Masorti rabbi in Ukraine and, we think, the first Ukrainian-born to be appointed to a rabbinic post in Ukraine since the fall of the Soviet Union and perhaps earlier.
Two days before that event, we had stood in silence at Babi Yar listening to Rabbi Chaim speaking tenderly and movingly in that place of death about the rebirth of the Jewish people following its persecution and attempted destruction by the Soviet regime and then in the Holocaust. The following day we spent Shabbat with Masorti families from all parts of Ukraine – Kabbalat Shabbat using a new Siddur developed specifically for the Ukraine Masorti community but with all the tunes that we recognise – followed by a communal dinner at which any language difficulties were more than compensated for by toasts with vodka. The following day again was spent with the community families whose pleasure in feeling themselves part of the wider Jewish community was very evident. Then, on Sunday, came the installation – a simple and elegant ceremony. Rabbi Stamov, under a chupah, was draped in a tallit before being presented with a Sefer Torah and then giving a drosha. There were the expected speeches – interspersed with beautiful dancing and singing from Masorti youngsters – but everyone was brief and focussed on the historic nature of what we were witnessing.. By the time we sang Hatikvah there was scarcely a dry eye in the (large) assembly. Across those days the evidence of enthusiasm for and commitment to Judaism was overwhelming and we came away with great hopes for the future.
That, though, was the high point. Now comes the hard work and Reuven and his wife Lena – both from Ukraine and an equal partnership if ever there was one – face the challenge of building communities and providing opportunities to people who may slowly be becoming aware of their Jewish roots and of their wish and need to engage with Judaism. Reuven spoke about the magnitude of the task and of the strength that he felt from the support of those who had come from the USA, Israel, France, Germany and the UK to witness his inauguration. He made it clear that he and his communities need that on-going support not just financially – although of course that is a major factor – but from the knowledge that they are very much part of the Masorti community. We want to play our part in providing that support. It may come in many ways – visits to the Ukraine (and anyone who makes the trip will have a warm welcome and will find it fascinating), personal links through social media, twinning bar and bat mitzvot, teaching and learning and many other possibilities. We are sure that there are many in our community who can trace their roots back to the Ukraine and we would like to hear from those people. Please email Richard Gold – firstname.lastname@example.org – with a brief note of how you are linked to the Ukraine and with any anecdotes that you may have from parents, grandparents or even further back. We think that would make fascinating reading both for our communities and for those in Ukraine. It will help to make them feel connected to world-wide Masorti and give them strength and encouragement to carry on their work.
Pictured Above: (from left) Richard Gold, Sue Gold, Hazel Stein, Gill Caplin, Rabbi Reuven Stamov, Rabbi Chaim Weiner and Eddie Caplin.