When I learned that the Armed Forces of Ukraine had a Jewish chaplain by the name of Yaakov Siniakov who was a ger tzedek, my immediate reaction was that I had to interview him. When I first contacted Yaakov he spoke to me in decent English, but I quickly realized that in order to have a more meaningful conversation I would need an interpreter. The Chabad shliach Rabbi Meir Stambler, who is the chairman of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Ukraine, graciously volunteered to act as our translator.
Born in the United States, Rabbi Stambler has been living in Ukraine for more than 30 years and has known Yaakov for at least five of them, going back to when he first started the process of conversion. “The first thing I want you to know is that Yaakov is a true leader,” Rabbi Stambler shares during the three-way-call I subsequently arranged. “Baruch Hashem, the Federation of Jewish Communities has a lot of staff members and volunteers, but when the war broke out a lot of people were understandably very frightened. When I was looking for people who weren’t afraid and could work under such conditions, Yaakov was the first person to step forward and say, ‘I am here for you. Give me any mission and I will do it.’ We were very fortunate to find someone with such amazing kochos. Whatever mission he is given, he refuses to give up until he’s successful. But he is very humble. He insists that there is nothing special about him, and he is simply part of the organization.
“Right now, there are 24 people working under him. Yaakov is in charge of this whole new aspect of the Federation, interfacing with the military and people on the frontlines, as well as helping the families of those whose husbands and fathers are currently fighting.”
What follows is my conversation with this exemplary individual.
Chazal say that the verse “Torah tzivah lanu Moshe morashah kehillas Yaakov” includes not only people who are born Jewish but also those who have joined the Jewish nation. This would apply especially to you, as your name is Yaakov.
Thank you. I converted to Judaism four years ago. My mother’s mother was actually Jewish, but because I didn’t have any documentary evidence to prove it, I had to go through the conversion process. My wife’s story is essentially the same. We’ve been married for 26 years. Her grandmother never spoke about being Jewish, but she spoke German, which we realized was probably Yiddish after she passed away. My wife underwent giyur the same time that I did, but we think that she was Jewish beforehand. Of course, after the conversion I had a bris and then we had a proper chuppah.
Did you grow up in a religious Christian home, or was it more secular?
I grew up in Ukraine when it was part of the Soviet Union, so we didn’t have any religion in our home at all.
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