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Conservative rabbi Reuven Stamov: “Even people who beat me up in childhood for being Jewish have left for Israel”

On the middle path to Judaism, matso with painted eggs, female rabbis and the attitude towards LGBT

Rav Reuven Stamov is the chief rabbi of the conservative school of Judaism in Ukraine, a member of the executive committee of VAAD Ukraine, and the founder of the Kiev community of conservative Judaism, Masoret. He is married with three daughters.

Please tell us about the history of the conservative school of Judaism.

This school came into being at around the same time that all the modern schools appeared – during the period of the era of enlightenment, which tangibly changed the world. The main Jewish reaction to this era was the appearance of so-called reformist Judaism, which in those times took on rather extreme forms, such as the introduction of an organ to the Shabbat service, the attempt to abolish kashrut, and holding the service in German – it took place in Germany.

At the same time, everyone understood that religion should be flexible and keep up with the times. On the other hand, there should be more precise boundaries than the ones which each person determined for themselves. Otherwise we can’t say that there is integrity of Jewish society. This is how the conservative school arose, which became a kind of reaction to excessive reform. The first conservative rabbis were rabbis of reaction. I heard a story about how at the first graduation of the reformist rabbinical college in Germany, non-kosher dishes were intentionally served, with prawns, oysters and other forbidden ingredients. Some of the rabbis left in indignation, considering this to be over the top. I can’t vouch for the authenticity of this story, but still..

The center of conservative Judaism later moved to the US and became one of the most popular schools of Judaism. About half of the religious Jews of America are members of conservative communities.

Why did this school become so popular in America?

It’s hard to say, but I think that it somehow corresponds to the American spirit of democratic values, gender equality, humanism…

You returned to religion at an adult age. How did this happen and why did you choose the conservative school?

I was born into an absolutely secular family, we did not have any observance of religious traditions at all. I remember that my grandmother brought matso to the house, once a year, and I didn’t even know where she brought it from. We ate this matso however we wanted, and there could well be painted eggs next to it. We didn’t give these things any religious connotations, it was just fun, everyone else did it, and we did it, I could easily eat matso along with painted eggs in my childhood. My grandmother spoke Yiddish, but my mother and I don’t know this language at all, apart from swearwords, of course. For some reason this was hidden from us.

In childhood I really suffered from anti-Semitism. I only had my surname changed when I was 16, it was Aizenshtein, a very colorful one. There was also a Fainshtein in my class, and that was about all the Jews in our three parallel classes. But later, when I saw the number of people going to Israel, I realized that that wasn’t all, their surnames simply weren’t so colorful. Even people who beat me up for being Jewish in childhood left for Israel, and some of them left before I did.

When I enrolled in the institute, I wasn’t very drawn towards Jewish matters, quite the opposite. Incidentally, I didn’t hide my ancestry there, despite the fact that my surname wasn’t Jewish by that time. There wasn’t any anti-Semitism there, people had evidently grown out of it, or the people who enrolled there had more understanding of life, I don’t know. At any rate, it didn’t exist there. In my crowd we had everyone – Jews, Russians, Tatars, Ukrainians – we all grew up together.

Several times people tried to involve me in the “Jewish Agency” crowd in Sevastopol, but with no success, I wasn’t interested. In 1996 I graduated from the institute with the profession of technical engineer of heavy machine-building, and tried to find a job at a factory. They told me I could work there, but that they didn’t pay a salary. I didn’t see the attraction of working without a salary and realized that the education that would have been fine in 1991 was completely worthless in 1996, and I decided to go to Israel. Like any person who goes to Israel, I went to the Jewish Agency for Hebrew courses. I found interesting people there, who were ideological in the Zionist sense, of my age, and there were some pretty girls among them, which was also a factor. It was a great, interesting crowd, but without a religious element. Of course they lit candles on Friday evening, but they had a disco afterwards. I was quite happy with all of this.

I even tried to go to the synagogue, at that time it changed its direction five times, as far as I recall. I went there and left quite quickly – I didn’t understand what was going on and no one paid attention to me. I realized that it wasn’t for me, and once more I was convinced of my atheism. But later, on one beautiful summer, about half a year later, most of our Jewish Agency crowd got into a big white beautiful El-Al plane and repatriated to Israel. Things got boring and I felt like doing this myself. There were people who had their own reasons for leaving the Jewish Agency, and they invited me to a reformist community. Although at that time I resisted religion in any form, they drew me there by the fact that they didn’t have any rules for clothing or appearance, they read prayers, which was a bit outlandish for me, but tolerable.

But about half a year later I found myself leading Shabbat at the reformist community, without really understanding what I was doing. Some time later I was invited to study at Makhon, a reformist educational institution. It was previously located in Kiev, then moved to Moscow, and what’s happening with them now I don’t know, to be honest. I successfully graduated from Makhon, and returned to the Crimea as a regional religious figure. There were seven reformist religious communities in Crimea at that time, and some of them were opened with my involvement.

Some time later I came to the understanding that religion should have boundaries. If we are talking of the divine origin of the Torah, this means that a person cannot establish boundaries themselves, this is not within their competence. Perhaps some “sub-boundaries”, yes, based on their experience, these can exist. But since for me personally there is nothing more divine than the Torah, this means that there are commandments that are placed on Jews. This means that they must be observed, and you can’t get away from this. When I came to this understanding, I felt uncomfortable within reform. I wanted to say I felt confined, but on the contrary, I needed more restrictions.

Then for the first time in my life I celebrated Yom Kippur, and gave up my favorite dish – pilaf with mussels, I used to cook it very well… It still makes me sad, I put my hopes in modern science, perhaps mussels with fins and scales will appear once day [laughs –ed.]… I’m joking of course…

Additionally I gave up pork, keeping kosher style. Then it turned out that conservatives were represented in Ukraine, and previously I had read about this movement in the book by Telushkin [“Jewish World”- ed.], and I thought that this was for me. The conservative movement in Ukraine at that time was conducting educational activity, but was practically not working on developing communities. They were doing a good thing – teaching Judaism to Jews, but without really making much effort to say who they were or to explain the essence of their school.

I was invited to work at the conservative children’s camp “Rama Yakhad”, where I met the leader of the movement Gila Kats. I liked it. They had a place for Shabbat and kashrut, but on the other hand there was a place for modernity. The atmosphere was humane and friendly, and Gila proved to be an incredibly kind person, I hadn’t met anyone like that before. I continued to work in the reformist movement for another half year, but in my heart I was conservative.

In 2003, I made Aliyah, at that moment I observed a quite respectable amount of commandments, their acceptance came gradually, and not all at once. In 2004 I began to work in a conservative educational structure which covered the CIS. Then the idea arose that I could become a rabbi and go to Ukraine as a rabbi.

Together with the section of the conservative school that works on building communities, the decision was made to make a special program for me. My Hebrew left something to be desired, and my knowledge, despite my study and reading of books, lagged behind the knowledge of any Israeli school pupil. Some of my first teachers at Makhon Shekhter twisted their fingers against their heads when talking to my superiors, and said: “What are you thinking, that boy’s a complete zero, how do you want him to become a rabbi? It’s impossible!” Some teachers were able to detect flashes of intelligence in me, they said that yes, he doesn’t know much, but he has a good grasp of things. These teachers approached me at graduation and simply cried with joy that they were able to teach me.

I’m certain that of all the fellow students who graduated with me, I was the weakest, and that’s being objective. Despite the fact that I grasp things quickly, I couldn’t reach the level they had. I probably studied for longer than anyone else, I took preparatory courses in Hebrew, and reached the “Vav” level, and official enrolled in the rabanut. As almost all the exams in Israel are written, for me they were a deathly ordeal and took me six hours – I was locked in the library, and I finished writing them there.

I came here with my family in 2012, a month after I defended my diploma.

What are the main differences of the conservative movement from the Orthodox one?

To start with it’s important to say that the conservative movement is very broad inside itself. There can be people here who are almost reformists and almost Orthodox. There’s even a facetious term – “conservadox”.

I think that the main difference is the attitude towards women and their role in prayer. In the conservative movement, women can be rabbis, and in conservative synagogues men and women usually sit together.

This is so-called Halakha pluralism, when within Halakha [Jewish religious law – ed.], answers are sought to questions, but they may differ from Orthodox answers. But this is in no way goes outside Halakha, it is a search for paths…

Judaism is an ancient religion, but at the same time it’s very flexible, and can accept the challenges of any time. What challenges does Judaism face today?

In my opinion, the main challenge to Judaism today is that Jews are leaving it. The process is continuing, and I think that we need to think about why this happens, and what is the essence of the “Jewish disappointment”. Assimilation is going full speed ahead…

It’s a difficult question… I can’t give a panacea and ready solutions to this problem. In our countries the reformists make a mistake when they don’t tell people that they should observe mitzvot [commandments – ed.]. And the Orthodox make a mistake when they say that all of them need to observed as they were 200 years ago. People are not ready, on the one hand, to accept religion without any dogma, but on the other hand the Orthodox go to the other extreme, I think. And the reaction that I have seen in the three years that I have been working in Ukraine gives me reason to believe that the conservative movement, in all probability, is on the right path, at least for countries of the former USSR. We offer a middle path, with a gradual immersion in Judaism.

We react differently to various aspects of social life, such as electricity on Shabbat, for example. We don’t prohibit it completely, there are devices that are allowed, and ones that are prohibited. I have my own opinion on this topic, I think that Orthodox would argue with me, if this were a discussion and not an interview. I think that Orthodox banned electricity on Shabbat simply so they didn’t have to look into it. It’s easier to ban everything than to analyze it.

A typical post-Soviet Jew is an intellectual who must investigate and understand something, and then immerse themselves in it. This is why most Jews have not yet been drawn into the life of reformist communities or the life of Orthodox movements.

I believe this is one of the reasons why we were not able to create a community in Kiev 25 years after Jewish life began to become active here. There are synagogues, big offices and centers that are nice and new, but still people do not come to us.

Who are the members of your community?

At present they are middle-aged people and students. The former automatically bring children with them. We have a lot of couples like this.

What attracts students? You work with young people a lot, and organize children’s camps…

Interestingly enough, students come for intellectual activities. I hold regular lessons on Saturday on everything connected with studying the Torah, and we spend a long time here [at the community premises- ed.] on this day.

We begin four to five hours before Havdalah, we have the Mincha prayer, have a few lessons and end by bidding farewell to Shabbat. We have a group of around 15 people, they find the Torah lessons interesting, studying midrashim. Usually we try to draw a practical conclusions after each lesson. I think that it’s impossible to interest them in another way.

Camps are more difficult. In my opinion, our camps have two goals. The first goal is not to teach, but to draw attention to Judaism and the culture of our people. The second goal is to bring together the family and community. Children aren’t very interested in a profound study of Judaism, but they can be entertained in some ways, so that the “Lekhah Dodi” song, for example, becomes familiar to them. You need to begin with little things

In Orthodox movements there is a negative attitude towards members of sexual minorities. Does the attitude of the conservative attitude towards LGBT differ?

That’s a difficult question, and in our circles it is currently a topical one. The conservative movement differs in its opinions about this issue. In America, for example, many conservative communities insist on equal rights for all their members. Obviously, no one throws out members of sexual minorities from communities in America, Israel, or anywhere else. This is about the possibility of a homosexual becoming a rabbi, or homosexual marriages.

I personally don’t see any problem in community members coming from sexual minorities. The question is whether there is a Halakha solution to this question. I stress that we, the conservative movement, are guided by Halakha and only Halakha. So we do not need to look for a humanist, but a Halakha decision. I personally, to be honest, am of the opinion that today this decision does not exist. I think that a section of the American conservative rabbis may not agree with me, but I am a student of the Israeli school…

I don’t know what attitude to take towards this, to be honest. It’s natural human quality, people are born the way they are born. If God created them this way, then this was how it was supposed to be. But at the same time there is a ban of Torah. The question remains as to whether there is a legitimate Halakha way around this.

What values do you as a rabbi find it important to give your community?

The value of the family, first of all. Judaism is directed towards creating and strengthening a Jewish family in many of its aspects and hypostases.

The values that we call common to humanity are also present in Judaism. They take different forms, have other names, but they exist.

It’s important to convey the value of healthy relationships between people, teach people to talk to God, to give Him their message, and receive their own personal answer as a result.

People become more religious during wartime. How have moods changed in the community during this time? Have there become fewer atheists?

I believe that atheism is a religion. The atheists who I meet are not quite atheists, they are rather people who cannot find a religion that meets their requirements. They usually recognize the existence of a power that created us, but reject cults – the ban on eating meat and milk together, for example, or observing Shabbat…. They do not see a connection between these things and God.

We have one person, a Halakha Jew, who is our executive director. He often emphasizes his atheism and doesn’t like to go to prayer. But he gladly goes to everything involving the study of the Torah and midrashim.

There are no atheists under fire in the trenches, as Letov once sang. We have people who have come from Donetsk. There are a lot of them. They attended something in Donetsk, they were not torn away from Jewish life. When I look at them during prayer, I see that they are inspired, especially to the blessing of peace. I usually end the reading earlier, I see them reaching the end of reading the prayer…

How realistic is it to organize a financially independent strong community in Ukraine?

I have an idea, but it also involves initial investments from western sponsors. But not for programs, but not for business development.

I don’t have access to major businessmen at present. And based on my contact with the “pillars” of Jewish life, I understand that the following situation exists with Ukrainian businessmen: they either gives money to Orthodox movements and only consider rabbis to be those in big hats, or are disappointed with the Orthodox movement. And those who have been disappointed with Orthodox movements often don’t look for other movements, they move away from Judaism altogether. These two categories remain unattainable for me. To be quite honest, I don’t know how to attract them to us. We are not as presentable as communities in large synagogues, we are more modest. We’re not in ruins, of course, but we’re modest.

There is another way. To develop the people who go to the community, to make them wealthier. This is beneficial for the community and its members. I would be happy about this kind of development.

At the same time, people give money more readily to programs, if you mention a camp, then people will give money. But when you present a business idea, in which I want to attract Jews and make a community business, they say to look for money somewhere else. Probably because the money given for programs is much easier to control, and the results are visible immediately. A business can collapse, but with a successful turn of events the benefit for the community would be colossal.

This is where the future lies. Jewish organizations continue to develop a feeling in people that we owe them, forever and unconditionally. This in fact humiliates human dignity, I believe…

We have a small member fee in our community. A person who cannot make this donation can earn it. This may be by cleaning, minor renovations, teaching something, if they have the skills and inclinations. I believe that this is correct, it gives a greater feeling of involvement in the life of the community.

How long will the influence of the former Soviet Union be felt on Jewish religious life in Ukraine?

A very long time, I think. This legacy remains, it is handed down… The Soviet Union no longer exists, a new generation of Jews has already grown up, born in an independent country. But they didn’t come to Judaism, their parents couldn’t bring them up in the Jewish spirit. This didn’t seem important at the time when the main thing was to make your child a “good person” or a specialist in a prestigious field. It’s important to understand that these things don’t contradict each other…

This is a serious problem, now these children need to be brought to communities, and educated in the Jewish spirit. All communities are united in that they work in this field. But there’s no end in sight to this work…

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