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Conservative Judaism movement to establish first community in Ukraine

Revital Blumenfeld, Haaretz, February 5, 2012
Ukrainian-Reuven Stanov, 38, is accredited by the Schechter Institute for Jewish Studies in Jerusalem as part of its program of preparing Conservative rabbis as spiritual leaders.

Sunday morning, when Reuven Stanov was accredited as a rabbi, the Conservative movement moved one step closer to realizing a mission it describes as almost messianic: building the first Conservative Jewish community in the Commonwealth of Independent States.

The Ukrainian-born Stanov, 38, was accredited by the Schechter Institute for Jewish Studies in Jerusalem Sunday as part of its program of preparing Conservative rabbis as spiritual leaders.

Stanov was recruited eight years ago when he worked in one of the movement's summer camps in the Ukraine and brought to Israel to be trained as a rabbi. The plan was that he would eventually return to the Ukraine to help establish a Conservative Jewish presence there. At the end of this month he and his family will indeed be heading back to Kiev to set up the first Conservative movement center in the Ukraine, as well as the first Conservative synagogue, clubs for youth and adults, an ulpan for learning Hebrew and for strengthening Jewish identity and links to Israel.

Stanov is a Cinderella story of the Conservative world. He grew up completely ignorant of Israel and his only link to Judaism at home was the eating of matza during Passover. His first chance exposure to religious activity and Zionism occurred during university studies when he signed up for one of the youth clubs run by Jewish students from the Conservative movement, after being brought there by a friend. He rose through the ranks of the movement's summer camps and was eventually recruited for rabbinical studies in Israel.

"I plan to create a community from people who studied at the (Conservative afternoon) schools in the Ukraine. We have a good foundation for a community in Kiev, and I hope we can eventually branch out to other cities," says Stanov.

The Conservative movement set up a network of educational centers in the Ukraine following the demise of the Soviet Union. These include summer camps, Jewish school programs, and even a state-funded school in Chernowitz with 300 pupils, with the religious content provided by the Schechter Institute's Midreshet Yerushalayim.

"There are many Hebrew-speaking Jews seeking Jewish education that is open and not Orthodox," says Rabbi David Golinkin, President of the Schechter Institute and a Talmud and halacha scholar. "When we set up a school at Donetsk (in the eastern Ukraine), people asked us to establish it because they said there was a Chabad school there but they wanted a separate school which was not Orthodox. The potential in Kiev is much greater."

According to the statistics of the Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs Ministry, there are 250,000 Jews in the Ukraine, half of them living in Kiev. The number doubles if one includes those who have at least one Jewish grandparent, which entitles them to immigrate to Israel on the basis of the Right of Return.