JEWS ATTEND the morning prayer at a synagogue in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, earlier this year.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In the basement of Yad Vashem in Jerusalem sits an archive of hundreds of boxes which contain many thousands of documents from the Holocaust era. During a recent tour for Shorashim employees as part of Shorashim’s first annual conference, Haim Gertner, the archive administrator, shared the contents of a single box among many.
Rav Shimon Har Shalom, administrative director of Tzohar’s Shorashim project, described how this box helped a woman reclaim her Jewish status at the age of 60.
After decades of living with her partner, he explained, she wished to marry, but could never definitively prove that she was Jewish.
Yet, in that box in the Yad Vashem basement sat a card from a German labor camp on which her grandmother’s name was listed among the prisoners. The very card on which the Nazis, in their dry, technical language, listed the dates of a woman’s detention and her work detail, served, decades later, to prove that this woman’s granddaughter was indeed a member of the Jewish nation.
When nearly a million immigrants flooded into Israel in the early 1990s, many recognized that a good percentage were not halachically Jewish. Yet few realized just how many of those immigrants who are in fact Jewish lacked the ability to prove their status. Some simply lacked the necessary document to prove their Jewish identity, while many came from families who, having spent decades under totalitarian regimes, took pains to conceal their Jewish roots, never dreaming that their children or grandchildren would immigrate to the Jewish state.
Tzohar quickly recognized the pressing need to help this unique population, and established Shorashim, an organization dedicated to assisting Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union prove their Jewish status.
Last week, over a dozen Shorashim employees from Israel, Russia and Ukraine gathered in Jerusalem for Shorashim’s first conference. Over the three-day program, these professionals spent a day in Yad Vashem, and studied different issues related to proving Jewish status, including working with rabbis around the world, genealogical research and the process of working with the Chief Rabbinate’s rabbinical courts.
In his talk to the group, Rav Tzachi Lehman, co-chairman of Tzohar, noted that many organizations often struggle to find a balance between congeniality and professionalism. Some organizations, while proficient, can seem distant and cold.
Others, while warm and “heimish,” often lack some of the necessary competence and thoroughness to complete the task. Yet Shorashim has found a unique formula to excel in both areas. When an applicant approaches the rabbinate with research from Shorashim, the dayanim (rabbinical court judges) know that the work has been done in a thorough and complete manner. At the same time, the people of Shorashim always work with a sense of care and devotion, never forgetting that in the end, they are tasked with a holy mission of reviving and restoring what was once a thriving Jewish population.
The author served as the rabbi of the Young Israel of Oak Park until his aliya in 1998.
He is a lecturer and director of student recruitment at the Orot College of Education in Elkana and serves as the Overseas Rabbinic Liaison for Tzohar.