MOSCOW – The people behind the Israeli organization Shorashim are a cross
between bespeckled librarians and Jewish Indiana Jones: No far-flung Ukrainian
village is too remote, no archives are too dusty to find a long-forgotten
document. They are scrambling against time, the enemy that is slowly erasing the
The six-year-old Shorashim organization traffics not in priceless
antiques, but in proving Jewish identities to the Rabbinate, Israel’s religious
governing body. After the fall of the Soviet Union, 1.1 million Soviet Jews
immigrated to Israel under the Law of Return, which requires just one Jewish
grandparent on either side in order to be considered Jewish.
however, traces Jewish identity through the mother’s lineage
Approximately 320,000 of the émigrés are practicing non-Jews who
have no desire to change their status to Jewish. But a large part of the
remaining 700,000 identifies as Jewish.
Most never realize there is any
doubt about their Jewish identity until they are required to provide
documentation to the Rabbinate at two points in their life: when they are
married, and when they are buried. Because Jewish identities were hidden or not
recorded during the 70 years of communist rule, Soviet Jews have no ketubot
(wedding contracts), burial notices from Jewish burial societies or official
documents identifying them as Jewish.
Some young couples who get
frustrated with the process of proving their Jewish identity in front of the
Rabbinical Court give up and marry outside of Israel. This means that if their
children want to be recognized as Jewish, the next generation must undergo a
long conversion process.
Enter Shorashim. Funded by Jewish Australian
billionaire Harry Triguboff, whose parents fled from the former Soviet Union,
the organization dedicated a permanent Office for the Clarification of Jewish
Status in Moscow on Monday to track down documents and witnesses that confirm
Jewish identities. Property manager mogul Triguboff, considered one of
Australia’s 10 richest men, previously directed his philanthropy efforts in
Israel to large-scale water purifying plants and other large infrastructure
“We did so much to bring [Soviet Jews] here, and now look how
we’re treating them, like second-class citizens,” said Shalom Norman, the
director of the Harry Triguboff Fund. Norman was also involved in negotiations
to bring Jews to Israel in the 1980s and ’90s.
“We thought it was just
about getting Jews out of the Soviet Union,” said Rabbi Shimon Har Shalom, the
director of Shorashim, who worked in Ukraine for three years as a representative
of the Rabbinate. “But actually, it’s not over, now we need to create equality
so Soviet Jews can marry anyone and do anything they want.”
which is under the auspices of the Israeli religious freedom activism group
Tzohar, is rooted in the ideology that immediate action must be taken to avoid a
demographic shift in Israel toward a non-Jewish majority.
Conversion is a
long and complicated process. It is also expensive: The state’s annual budget
for conversion is NIS 40 million.
Approximately 2,200 people go through
the state’s conversion process each year, 800 in the framework of the army – at
the cost of more than NIS 18,000 per person.
Proving Jewish identity is a
much cheaper alternative. Shorashim has finished more than 2,000 investigations
into Jewish identity since they started six years ago. Each investigation can
affect up to five people, because the same documents can be used to prove the
identity of an entire family. After receiving a request for help, Shorashim
combs local archives for old ID papers, birth certificates and death
announcements. They interview witnesses, including neighbors or distant family
members still living in the country, who can attest to whether or not a family
was Jewish. Each investigation is different, but generally, three pieces of
evidence are required to prove Jewish identity. Many people come to Shorashim
with one document, but need additional evidence.
In more than 80 percent
of the cases, Shorashim is able to find enough proof that the Rabbinate confirms
the Jewish identity, the organized reported. Shorashim finished 560
investigations in 2011, nearly double the amount as in 2010. The organization
distances itself from the politics of the situation – the political infighting
of the Rabbinate, the claim that the bureaucratic process of “proof of Jewish
identity” is offensive or unnecessary. Instead, it races to gather as much
information as possible before witnesses die or bankrupt archives are
But the organization must also proceed carefully to avoid
offending the very community it is trying to assist.
“Suddenly having to
prove you’re Jewish, it’s irritating,” said Rabbi Pinhas Goldschmidt, the Chief
Rabbi of Moscow’s largest synagogue, the Moscow Choral Synagogue, at an event on
Monday celebrating the opening of the Moscow office. “It’s like someone who’s
been practicing medicine for 30 years and suddenly they demand his
Until now, it was clear to them that they’re Jewish. People
don’t like having to go through this clarification,” he said.
faults Israel for not doing more to remedy the situation in the early 1990s,
just after the major wave of FSU Jews arrived.
Now, Shorashim is
scrambling to reach the Soviet Jewish community both in Israel and abroad,
especially in Australia and the US.
Approximately 480,000 Jews from the
former Soviet Union live in the US.
The lack of proof also affects FSU
Jews living abroad and their children, who want to get married or make
“In other countries, community rabbis can determine if you are
Jewish,” explained Har Shalom. “But in the former USSR, there were no
communities, and there were no community rabbis.”
Therefore, even Soviet
Jews living in the US are required to find documentation from the Soviet Union,
not their community in the US. Shorashim already deals with a few requests from
America, but is trying to raise awareness in Diaspora communities around the
On Monday, stylishly dressed Muscovites bundled in exotic fur
hurried outside in -19 degree Celsius weather, relatively balmy for Moscow in
January. Inside a coffee shop, Norman, Har Shalom, and Yaakov Shumiatsky, the
Rabbinate’s main contact person in Russia and the head of Goldschmidt’s office,
celebrated the opening of the Moscow office and talked shop about Shorashim’s
most interesting cases. They can sit for hours over cups of strong black Russian
tea, each trying to outdo the next with complicated tales of dual identities,
confounding conversions and halachic quandaries.
There was G., a
Ukrainian woman who made aliya as a non-Jew, but whose uncle was documented as
Jewish. It turned out that the grandmother, a highly skilled artist, had painted
over the nationality part of her daughter’s birth certificate, from “Jewish” to
“Ukrainian” in 1954, to avoid political problems. Armed with the grandmother’s
testimony, Shorashim took the document to a forgery expert. The Rabbinate also
employs investigators to research claims of Jewish identity, but it does not
have the resources to meet with witnesses in Israel, much less abroad, or pursue
expensive avenues such as forgery experts. The forgery of G.’s mother’s birth
certificate was recognized, and G. and her brother were both confirmed as
Another success story is A., a 25-year-old woman born in
Tashkent, Uzbekistan, who discovered three weeks before her wedding that the
Rabbinate needed more evidence proving her Jewish identity. Her mother had fled
Israel and her grandmother was hospitalized in a vegetative state, so no one in
the country could testify on her behalf.
Shorashim reached out to its
contacts in Uzbekistan, who were able to find documents proving the Jewish
identity of her family for the past five generations, and A. was able to get
married in a Jewish ceremony on her original wedding date.
“And there are
times when we have to find proof of Judaism and organize a get [Jewish divorce]
at the same time,” said Shumiatsky, “And not just one get. Sometimes it’s two,
or three...” Three? “Yes, we had one situation where we had to organize three
gets. Her new husband didn’t know she had been married before,” he
As globalization increases and Jews spread out to more corners
of the world, marrying different groups of Jews and non-Jews, questions of
identity, ethnic roots, and proof of Judaism only become more
Despite the fact that this proof is really only necessary
twice during a lifetime, during marriage and burial, religious identity runs
deeper than the bureaucratic processes, and is important to many people on an
emotional level, said Norman. Lack of documented proof is an administrative
stumbling block that ostracizes large swathes of the population, he
Norman called the technical issues surrounding proof of
Judaism “the big tragedy” and warned that an entire generation of Jews could be
“They went through 70 years of communism, what some call ‘The Red
Holocaust,’” said Norman. “We brought them here, but there is one thing left we
haven’t been able to do, and that’s why we’re here.”The reporter was a
guest of Shorashim in Moscow.