Jews in Israel are a diverse lot, hailing from all four corners of the globe and everywhere in between.
For native Israelis, providing proof of their Jewish roots and heritage is generally not difficult, and the presentation of their parents’ marriage certificate issued in Israel by the rabbinate will usually suffice.
But for more recent arrivals, proving one’s Jewish ancestry is a lot more complicated, and is getting increasingly difficult.
The issue typically arises when immigrants try to register for marriage, which can only be done through the rabbinate, which has exclusive jurisdiction over marriage and divorce in the State of Israel.
Although Jewish immigrants from the US, UK, Europe and South America increasingly face difficulties in this regard, immigrants from the countries comprising the former Soviet Union tend to encounter the biggest problems.
Some one million immigrants from the former Soviet Union immigrated to Israel between 1989 and 2012 under the Law of Return.
About a quarter of these immigrants had only one Jewish grandparent, enabling them to claim citizenship under the Law of Return, but they are not Jewish according to Jewish law. But as many as a half-million Israeli citizens from the former Soviet Union are Jewish, yet still face difficulties proving their Jewish status.
AVI AND Sarah (pseudonyms to avoid potential adversity resulting from media coverage) fell in love and got engaged in the autumn of 2013. They went to the Tel Aviv rabbinate to register for marriage, but quickly encountered obstacles.
Sarah’s family had immigrated to Israel in 1990 from Uzbekistan.
Sarah, seven years old at the time, came with her parents, grandparents and two uncles. The family, although not strictly observant, lived a traditional Jewish life.
In 1991, one of her uncles required a brit mila (circumcision) ceremony, since he had never had one in Uzbekistan. The state was at the time providing free circumcisions for immigrants from the former Soviet Union, but required proof of Jewish status to receive the service.
The Ashkenazi municipal chief rabbi of Bat Yam at the time, Rabbi Shaul Weingarten, determined that Sarah’s maternal grandmother, who had made aliya from Uzbekistan with the rest of the family in 1991, was Jewish, noting that he knew the family personally and knew them to be Jewish.
Then in 2011, Sarah’s other uncle became engaged and approached the Tel Aviv rabbinate to register for marriage. The rabbinate referred the case to the Tel Aviv rabbinical court, which employed the services of a Jewish status investigator from the rabbinical courts administration to look into the family’s history.
The investigator duly interviewed Sarah’s grandmother and evaluated the documentary records in the family’s possession.
Sarah’s grandmother was originally from Poland, but her family left that country in 1937 and traveled eastwards. Her grandmother was born in 1941 somewhere in the Soviet Union, although the precise location is unknown, and the family settled finally in Uzbekistan in 1944, where her birth was registered.
Along with the testimony the grandmother gave of her family history and her memories of a Jewish upbringing, she also provided the investigator with her Jewish marriage certificate from Uzbekistan, produced in 1965.
Somewhat surprisingly, the decision of the Tel Aviv rabbinical court in 2011 and the documentation provided for the Jewish status investigation of Sarah’s uncle proved insufficient for the investigator dealing with Sarah’s case in 2013.
He ignored the Jewish marriage certificate, insisting that only Soviet state documents could be used, and deemed the discrepancy between the date of birth of Sarah’s grandmother as given on her birth certificate and the date on which her birth was registered as cause for suspicion, saying that it was possible that her grandmother had been adopted as a child and was not in fact Jewish.
The grandmother was not interviewed by the rabbinical court or the investigator, who insisted that only relevant documentation could prove her Jewish status.
The decision did not rule that Sarah’s grandmother was not Jewish, only that the evidence was insufficient to determine conclusively that she was Jewish. Various officials then recommended that Sarah convert in order to marry her fiancé.
Avi, who is Orthodox and studied in a national-religious yeshiva, and Sarah ultimately decided that conversion was an unacceptable solution since they firmly believed her to be Jewish.
The family has appealed the case to the Supreme Rabbinical Court and is being represented by the Jewish Life Advocacy Center (ITIM), a religious services advisory organization, but due to a backlog of cases and the fact that there is just one permanent rabbinical judge currently serving on the court (apart from the two chief rabbis), the appeal has yet to be heard.
Avi and Sarah, choosing not to wait until the Supreme Rabbinical Court is able to make a ruling in order to get married, had Avi’s father, an Orthodox rabbi, marry them himself in February 2014 outside the auspices of the chief rabbinate.
The couple subsequently traveled to Cyprus and got married again in a civil ceremony there, which can be legally recognized in Israel for the purposes of registering as married with the Interior Ministry.
Since then, Avi and Sarah have had a baby, but the child will not be deemed Jewish until the Supreme Rabbinical Court rules that Sarah is indeed Jewish. If it rules that her Jewish status has not been satisfactorily proven, the future status of her children, grandchildren and their children thereafter will be “of no religion” in the eyes of the rabbinate.
Avi’s father says that although his son and daughter-in-law were angry about the manner in which their case was dealt, they are “less interested in this issue with each passing day,” and do not see the rabbinate’s position as relevant to their lives.
ELIMELECH PARIEVSKI is one of five Jewish status researchers for Shorashim, a branch of the Tzohar rabbinical association, which deals precisely with the kind of questions and problems that Avi and Sarah faced.
Shorashim estimates that there are some 500,000 Israeli citizens who need or will need to prove their Jewish status – the majority from the former Soviet Union, although with growing numbers from South America, the US and Europe.
According to Parievski, the organization dealt with 1,200 cases in 2014 but will address approximately 2,000 files by the end of 2015.
Although individuals requiring Jewish status clarification often lack religious documentation due to the communist suppression of religion, state documentation frequently did state the bearer’s ethnicity, and in the case of Jews they were registered as Jewish.
For Shorashim investigators and the rabbinical courts, this kind of documentary evidence is considered the most reliable and conclusive. It includes birth, death and marriage records that list people as Jewish, as well as state employment booklets held by workers, and even some municipal and academic documents.
Shorashim’s representatives in the former Soviet Union carry out research in state archives of the former USSR republics, looking for records of individuals who approach them for help or who are sent their way by the rabbinical courts.
Photographs of family gatherings, funerals, documentation from military medals awarded to Jewish soldiers and notices to relatives that a Jewish soldier was killed in action are all viable forms of evidence.
The organization’s researchers also conduct interviews, both in Israel and in the former Soviet Union, with grandparents and great-grandparents of people seeking Jewish status clarification, either to bolster the evidence provided or as evidence in the absence of documentation.
Parievski reports that it is rare for a family to have all of the required documentation. At least some official documents will often exist, but on some occasions, none at all can be found.
In such cases, interviews with relatives can be crucial. Yiddish-speaking grandparents are a strong indicator of Jewish ancestry, while researchers will also ask questions about various Jewish traditions that relatives might have observed and which would also indicate Jewish heritage.
For example, in Ukraine the Jewish version of borscht, a beetroot-based soup, would have a sweet-and-sour flavor, whereas the non-Jewish recipe would taste different.
By quizzing elderly relatives about these kinds of matters, researchers can gain valuable insight into the possible Jewish ancestry of the individuals who are seeking to prove their Jewish status today, Parievski relates.
RABBI SETH Farber, director of ITIM, reports that in recent years the trend has been toward almost exclusive dependence by the rabbinical courts on documentary evidence, to the exclusion of testimonial evidence.
Pointing to the case of Avi and Sarah where there is already a ruling by a rabbinical court that the persons in question are Jewish, he asks why this should be cast into doubt by a hypothetical possibility, based on little evidence, that the grandmother was adopted.
Farber points to the Shulhan Aruch, the comprehensive 16th century authoritative codification of Jewish law, which states that families claiming to be Jewish are assumed to be Jewish unless there is evidence to the contrary, and feels that it is pertinent to such people.
“If we rely too much on documentation then we will tip the balance, so that only this kind of evidence will be admissible and we’ll forget normative Jewish law, which has a presumption of Jewish status,” says Farber.
“If the rabbinate’s current position is taken to its natural conclusion, everyone will be assumed to not be Jewish and everyone will therefore need to open a file to investigate and prove their Jewish bona fides,” he lamented.
“The rabbinical court can’t just overturn the decision of a previous court with no evidence,” Avi’s father said. “Rabbis believe the process of Jewish law determines what’s true, not people playing detectives. Unfortunately, there has been a decision somewhere along the line not to bring the halachic process to bear.”
That said, the communist regime in the Soviet Union had an enormous effect on the identity of its Jewish subjects; the concerns of the rabbinical courts to prevent intermarriage in the Jewish state are legitimate, and the importance of proving Jewish status should not be denigrated.
But as the case of Avi and Sarah proves, an approach that presumes from the outset that an individual is not Jewish can itself, in the long term, threaten the cohesiveness of Jewish society in Israel.