By Rabbi Shlomo Zacharow
25 Sivan, 5776
July 1, 2016
In the summer of 1998, I was blessed to witness a pivotal moment in Jewish history in the Former Soviet Union. I was present at the first Conservative wedding in the independent Ukraine, one of the first traditional huppot in the post-Soviet period. Tomorrow night (Motzei-Shabbat– July 2) I am scheduled to travel to the Ukraine for my ninth visit, God willing.
I will be heading to the Ramah-Ukraine Family Camp in Cherkassy (central Ukraine), which runs this year from July 7-13. Since 2004 this inter-generational camp has provided a unique Jewish family experience for hundreds of children, parents and their grandparents, sponsored by Midreshet Yerushalayim, a program of the Schechter Institute, and by Masorti Olami. The Ramah-Ukraine Family Camp this year also reconnected to its history, having received a generous donation in memory of Rami Wernick z”l, a true leader in experiential Jewish learning and son of Rabbi Joe Wernick, one of the Founders of Midreshet Yerushalayim.
Among the highlights of the Ramah-Ukraine Family Camp this year will be two weddings. They will be presided over by Rabbi Reuven Stamov, spiritual leader of Kiev’s Conservative Kehillat Masoret, and myself – both of us are graduates of the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary in Jerusalem.
This year will be a record-breaker for Conservative-officiated marriages for members of the Ukrainian Jewish community. Last August I presided over the nuptials of Leonid and Galina, overlooking the old city of Jerusalem. The couple lives in Odessa but they went to great lengths to celebrate their marriage in Israel. Leonid studied for an academic year at Midreshet Yerushalayim, the Russian-language division of the Schechter Institute of Jerusalem. In Odessa, Leonid teaches Hebrew and Judaism at the Israel Culture Center and in Beit Grand, one of the two Jewish Community Centers.
This past March, I also performed the wedding of Dima and Yuliya in Jaffa, on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. The couple grew up in the embrace of Midreshet Yerushalayim’s Jewish education programs, which were founded in Ukraine in the early 1990’s by Gila Katz, who continues to direct Camp Ramah-Ukraine today. On August 3, Lev and Miriam from Chernowitz will be married at Camp Ramah-Ukraine, with Rabbi David Golinkin conducting the wedding. Lev is a former camper and counselor at Ramah-Ukraine, and is today the Director of a young and growing Conservative community in Chernowitz.
In his ominous words of impending destruction, the prophet Jeremiah prophesied three times that the Lord will silence the voice of the bridegroom and the bride from the cities of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem. Only in a fourth premonition of comfort did he state that the voice of the newlyweds shall be heard again.
For 70 years (586 BCE – 516 BCE) his first ominous prophecy rang true until his final divination came to pass with the restoration of the Jewish presence in Judah and Jerusalem. Likewise, due to 70 years of Communism and Nazism in the 20th century, the voice of Jewish nuptials was barely heard in the Ukraine. Today, that voice is once again ringing, reflecting the prophecy of Jeremiah!
There remains today in Ukraine a pintele yid, a “Jewish spark,” as Jews and those with Jewish blood continue to surface and seek nourishment. The voice of the Hattan and the Kallah resound again in the cities of the Carpathians and the streets of Kiev. What remains to be seen in historical retrospect is whether we are riding on a wave of a true revival of spirit or merely a final breath for a once flourishing Jewish community. I prefer to be surfing.
Rabbi Shlomo Zacharow teaches at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem, directs the Bet Din for Divorces on behalf of the Masorti Movement and works for Masorti Olami.