MOSCOW – “We had a conversion candidate who came to us not so long ago. His name was Benya (Benjamin) Silber from Berdichev,” relates Rabbi Meir Manevich, the man responsible for overseeing conversion in Moscow’s main Jewish community in the Moscow Choral Synagogue.
“So we said, ‘Something here isn’t right!’ His first name is Benjamin, his last name is Silber and he’s from Berdichev. This person must be a Jew, he can’t be a non-Jew, it’s absurd, it’s nonsense,” continued Manevich, who cited the rich Jewish history of the city of Berdichev, now in northern Ukraine, whose population was once 75 percent Jewish and from where a hassidic dynasty was born.
History, and the Communist regime of the former Soviet Union in particular, was particularly unkind to the Jewish communities that fell under its control as religion was suppressed for 70 years and Jewish religious life became almost impossible to sustain.
It is for this reason, to a large extent, that Silber was not born Jewish according to Jewish law, Halacha, despite his clear Jewish heritage, and his story is mirrored by countless others still living in the countries of the FSU.
In 2015, immigration to Israel hit a 15-year high, with some 30,000 Jews making aliya, including approximately 13,600 who came from Ukraine and Russia, both of which have witnessed dramatic increases in their aliya rates since 2013.
Large numbers of those people are not considered Jewish according to Halacha, meaning they are not born to a Jewish mother, but they nevertheless are eligible for the Law of Return, which grants Israeli citizenship to those with at least one Jewish grandparent. In the first aliya from the FSU in the 1990s, some 307,000 of the approximately 1 million people who came were not halachically Jewish.
According to Prof. Ze’ev Khanin, chief scientist of the Immigration and Absorption Ministry and senior lecturer in political studies at Bar-Ilan University, approximately half of the immigrants coming to Israel from the FSU above age 30 are not Jewish according to Halacha, and as many as 75 percent of younger immigrants are also not born to a Jewish mother.
In total, he estimates there are between 720,000 to 900,000 people in the FSU who are eligible for Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return.
Sociologists and Jewish leaders in Israel have worried for a long time that the large group of technically non-Jewish but integrated citizens originally from the FSU, could become alienated from the majority Jewish population if they feel they are treated as second-class citizens and looked down upon as non-Jews.
At a certain stage, it is feared, they could become another group advocating against the explicitly Jewish nature of the state and for stripping the country of its formal Jewish character.
Religious leaders also have pointed to the possibility of Jewish intermarriage with non-Jewish immigrants and their children as a further threat to the integrity of the country’s Jewish population.
Although efforts are under way to deal with the issue within Israel’s borders, a new campaign orchestrated by the Triguboff Institute, which assists immigrants from the FSU with Jewish personal status issues, plans to be launched shortly to tackle the problem at the source.
Maslul, a project of the institute, promotes the idea of Jewish conversion to people in Russia and Ukraine who begin the process of making aliya.
Moreover, Maslul offers anyone who shows interest in formally converting the opportunity to begin studying the state’s official conversion courses before they even get to Israel.
The state conversion course comprises 400 study hours, and conversion candidates in Russia and Ukraine would be able to complete as many as 180 hours before coming to Israel.
In addition, Maslul emphasizes to Jewish immigrants the importance of working as hard as possible on clarifying their Jewish status by finding the requisite documents and approaching Maslul experts who would interview them and their family members to provide acceptable testimony for Israel’s rabbinical courts as proof of their Jewishness.
Other partners in the project include the Jewish Agency, Keren Hayesod – United Israel Appeal, as well as the Jewish community of the Moscow Choral Synagogue headed by Moscow Chief Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt and the Midrasha Zionit in Kiev.
Maslul is headed by Rabbi Chaim Iram, the municipal chief rabbi of the Elazar settlement in Gush Etzion and a former rabbinical judge on the state conversion courts, who says the organization will work closely with the Jewish Agency so that when potential immigrants meet with the agency’s representatives they will receive information about the possibility of starting the conversion courses or, alternatively, completing the Jewish-status clarification process. The importance of these issues within the context of Israeli society will be emphasized, he says.
The pre-aliya classes are to be taught by teachers approved by Maslul staff, although conversion is only to be completed in Israel. Crucially, Iram said that Nativ, Israel’s state conversion authority, has agreed to the idea and accepts the hours completed in Russia and Ukraine of Nativ’s courses as part of the required study before converting.
Once in Israel, Maslul staff is to make contact with those who took the classes to accompany them along the rest of the conversion path.
The project hopes to start with two classes each in Kiev and Moscow, which are scheduled to begin later this month.
Although Iram acknowledges that the initial number of people who sign up for the conversion courses would be relatively small, he insists that if conducted correctly and a positive vibe is built up around it, the program quickly could become appealing to much larger numbers of potential immigrants.
Shalom Norman, director of the Triguboff Institute and the driving force behind Maslul, said it is far easier for someone to convert while still in their country of birth than once arriving in Israel.
While still in Russia or Ukraine, potential conversion candidates have the familiarity of their old environment, the support network of their friends and family, no financial pressures and no language difficulties, but all this changes once they make aliya, when learning Hebrew, navigating Israeli bureaucracy and finding a job become the high priorities for new immigrants, he said.
“We want to give them this option of starting the conversion process before they come up against these problems,” Norman says.
He want those in the aliya process to take use productively the many months it can take between the first thought of making aliya to actually arriving at Ben-Gurion Airport.
“This is precious time, there’s a lot of motivation, a lot of adrenalin, we want people to take advantage of the time before aliya when the adrenalin is high to deal with these issues and make the issue of personal status part of the relocation process.”
Norman says the goal of Maslul is to correct history.
“We’re trying to fix a historic distortion. This history resulted from the central events of the 20th century in which the majority of the Jews of Europe were uprooted and Jewish continuity was severely interrupted.”
Manevich speaks in similar terms.
“We are straightening out that which has become crooked. Assimilation wasn’t the will of Russian Jewry, it was a historical process, like a tsunami that closed off millions of Jews. The Holocaust, the Communist revolution, led to us losing millions of souls,” he says.
“There are people who have Jewish names, whose families are Jewish, whose fathers are Jewish, whose identity is Jewish, whose faces are Jewish, but who are non-Jews.
“The only sane, normal and right thing to do is to go toward those who are seeking their way home. How can we not help them?” Manevich asks.
Nevertheless, many remain circumspect about the motivations of those now coming to Israel, as it cannot be doubted that one of the primary reasons for the rise in aliya from the FSU in recent years is the political and economic instability of the region.
The civil war in Ukraine and resulting political instability has been the driving factor in increased Jewish immigration from that country, while Western sanctions against Russia for its meddling in Ukraine and the collapse of the price of oil, a critical component of the Russian economy, has caused a severe decline in the health of Russia’s economy.
Khanin says, however, that this is an over-simplified analysis of the immigration phenomenon from these countries.
“Push factors are often more important than pull factors, for sure,” he says. “It is the push factors that are bringing some of the large numbers of people who are on the fence about aliya off of it.
“But push factors never affect the direction. This [current] immigration is motivated economically, but also ideologically, ethnically and nationally.”
Khanin says the level of identity of what he terms the Jewish collective with the ethnic and national aspect of the Jewish people is as high, if not higher in some respects, than it was in the 1990s because the large resources poured into reinvigorating Jewish religious and communal life after the fall of Communism have had a significant effect.
“I say to the Jewish population in Israeli society that these immigrants are not worse Jews, or lesser Jews than they are, despite the fact that they understand Jewishness differently,” Khanin says.
Most prominent among those questioning the wisdom of bringing in more immigrants from the FSU who are not Jewish according to halacha in Israel is Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau, who has on several occasions suggested changing the Law of Return so that only someone whose mother is Jewish would be eligible for Israeli citizenship.
Iram calls such an idea is both unworkable and unjust, arguing that it would be impossible to gain societal and political consensus for such a step in today’s environment.
He says the Law of Return was designed to not divide families and unjustly prevent people who do have the right to live in the Jewish state from realizing that dream if they have to leave behind members of their family who would be denied the right under a stricter form of the law.
Moreover, Iram dismisses the validity of the argument that such people should be prevented from coming to Israel because of their motivations, economic or otherwise.
“My grandmother hundreds of generations back left Egypt for economic reasons!” he declares, referring to the biblical account of the enslavement of the Israelites by the Egyptians and the Exodus from Egypt. “She didn’t leave because Moshe promised her the Torah.”
Iram then related a story of a young female convert for whom he conducted a wedding several years ago.
“Under the huppa [wedding canopy] she looked up to the heavens and said, ‘Grandfather, I’ve come home.’” Her grandfather several generations ago, explains Iram, was Rabbi Shmuel Mohilever, one of the ideological founding fathers of the national-religious movement and a founder of the Hovevei Zion movement, one of the first groups to promote Jewish emigration from Eastern Europe to the Land of Israel before the flowering of political Zionism.
“In many instances of conversion, what you’re doing is bringing people home. We have to understand what kind of exile it was they lived through,” says Iram. “What would Rabbi Mohilever have thought if we would have left his granddaughter outside, if we would not have converted her?”