The daily news about the growing possibility of a Russian invasion of Ukraine has me concerned.
I served as a Rabbi for the Reform Congregation in Kiev 25 years ago and I am still in touch with former congregants. They taught me many lessons about hope. Jews in Kiev were once powerless victims. Today Ukraine is the only country, other than Israel, that has a Jewish President and a Jewish Prime Minister.
They also taught about the power of education. When I first attended the Shabbat Services of the Kiev Reform Congregation in 1995, I was surprised that the entire service was in Hebrew. I asked “I thought it was illegal to own books printed in Hebrew under the Soviets, how did you learn Hebrew?” They replied “Yes. During Communism if you were caught with a Hebrew book you could be sent to the Gulag. But after the Soviet Union collapsed we got some prayer books brought to us by American Jews. There was an old man in our community who knew some Hebrew and taught us. We would meet for an hour before services began and read a prayer over and over until we knew it and then we would move on to the next prayer. After three years we can now sing all the prayers in Hebrew.” I remember feeling inspired by their enthusiasm to learn about Jewish life.
When I began leading Bnei Mitzvah services for young families of the congregation I discovered very few people had Jewish names. That custom had gotten lost. So, I encouraged people to pick a Jewish name that was a Hebrew translation of their name, or a Hebrew name that began with the same first letter of their Russian name, or take the Jewish name of a beloved grandparent or family member. On the Shabbat when we concluded reading the Book of Exodus we held a ceremony in which a Hebrew name certificate was given to all who wanted a Hebrew name. Why that Shabbat? In Hebrew, the Book of Exodus is called Shemot. Shemot means names. This year 2022, we will conclude the Book of Names on March 5, 2022.
Dear reader, do you not yet have a Hebrew name? May I help you choose one? Hebrew names add another facet to our Jewish identity and strengthen our connection to the greater Jewish community. Please contact me at Rabbiwilfond@templest.org. In a few weeks we too will finish the Book of Shemot, The Book of Names, and I would like to conduct a brief naming ceremony for all who want a Jewish name, but never got one.
At this time, while we watch the events in Ukraine, I am remembering what I learned from the Jews of Kiev and I am wondering if some of those lessons might help us here. Please let me know if I can help you find a Jewish name.
Rabbi David Wilfond