NEW YORK – Immigration and Absorption Minister Sofa Landver pledged to promote the aliya of members of the Russian Subbotnik community during an interview with Israel Radio on Sunday.
The Subbotniks, descendants of Russian peasants who converted to Judaism over 200 years ago, were banned from aliya by the state in 2005. Over 15,000 members of the community remain in southern Russia and Siberia, according to the Shavei Israel organization.
Shavei Israel works to bring communities of Jewish descent to Israel, including Subbotniks and Spanish converses.
Landver’s words come on the heels of a similar statement by Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky, who told attendees at last month’s Ashdod Aliya Conference that “the State of Israel must hold its doors open to those who wish to join the Jewish people.”
Sharansky explained that Israel must recognize the Subbotniks, as even the Soviets who persecuted them for their religious beliefs acknowledged them as Jews.
Several hundreds of thousands have made aliya and become fully integrated in Israeli society – raising their children and grandchildren in Israel.
Some regard themselves as religiously observant, even ultra-Orthodox, according to the Jewish Agency. However, it noted in a press release, “in recent years, their Jewishness has been questioned and their aliya was halted.”
“We at The Jewish Agency have long been involved in this issue and we are working with the government to resolve it as soon as possible,” Sharansky told The Jerusalem Post on Sunday.
“On a personal level, I worked with the Subbotniks prior to my incarceration in the former Soviet Union, and I remember how happy I was to learn, upon my release, that so many of those with whom I had worked had made their way to Israel while I was in prison. To me, this is the closing of a circle and I look forward to seeing this matter resolved once and for all.”
In response to Landver and Sharansky’s calls for Subbotnik aliya, President of Shavei Israel Michael Freund told the Post that he believes that with renewed public support there won’t be “any difficulties with [a] decision being passed” in the cabinet.
“Subbotnik Jews,” Freund said, “have been coming on aliya since before the establishment of the state and came freely for more than a century. There was no justice in shutting down their aliya.”
“I’m delighted that the government now has decided to open the door for the Subbotnik Jews and we look forward to working together with the Absorption Minister Sofa Landver and with the Chief Rabbinate to assist the Subbotnik Jews to return to our people and our land. The support for the resumption of the aliya of the Subbotnik Jews cuts across political and religious boundaries and it enjoys widespread support across the political spectrum,” Freund concluded.
MK Dov Lipman (Yesh Atid), an American immigrant and staunch promoter of aliya, told the Post that the Jewish people live in “the times of the redemption and need to start thinking and acting accordingly. [This] includes a focus on the gathering of the exiles.”
Lipman said that many Jewish legal “sources indicate that in the times of the redemption those who have become lost during exile will come back and we need to find solutions to enable them to rejoin the Jewish people.”
Alex Selsky, CEO of the World Forum of Russian Speaking Jews, said that he was delighted by Landver’s statement, calling the Subbotniks an important community that has contributed much to the state.
One government official, who spoke with the Post on condition of anonymity, said that there are other groups in the same situation as the Subbotniks around the world, including the Anusim, which should be brought home as well.
In his remarks in Ashdod, Sharansky echoed that sentiment, saying that while “Spain is making an effort to return the descendants of Jews expelled from Spain in 1492,” it is important to note that “according to estimates, there are millions of descendants of conversos, including hundreds of thousands who are exploring ways of returning to their Jewish roots.”
“The State of Israel must ease the way for their return,” he said.