Maslul, a new project which provides conversion classes to people making aliyah from the former Soviet Union, opened its doors this week to its first batch of some 70 students in Moscow and Kiev.
The project, initiated and funded by the Triguboff Institute, is aimed towards those with the right to Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return but who are not recognized by the Jewish law, halacha, and who are already in the process of making aliyah, which typicall takes between six months to more than a year.
There has been a considerable rise in immigration to Israel from the countries of the former Soviet Union in the past two years, although it is estimated that half of immigrants are not halachially Jewish.
The classes provided by Maslul are designed according to the curriculum of the ‘Nativ’ state conversion authority. The entire conversion course, which can only be completed once in Israel, requires 400 hours of study for conversion, 180 hours of which can be completed through Maslul.
According to Maslul, finding the time to begin a conversion course is much easier for an immigrant while still in their home country, since they are in a familiar environment with support from family and friends, no language difficulties, and none of the bureaucratic requirements which must be dealt with after making aliyah.
The remaining hours required to complete the conversion course can be done once in Israel, and Maslul says that it will be following up with those who began the course back in Russia or Ukraine.
The program is being conducted in cooperation with the Jewish Agency, the Jewish community of the Choral Synagogue in Moscow, the Midrasha Zionit in Kiev and Nativ - the National Center for Identity and Conversion in Israel, and expects to double the number of participants in the next month.
Kiril Lesnikov, 28, has just begun the new conversion course in Moscow. His grandmother on his father’s side is Jewish, qualifying him for the right to citizenship, but he is not Jewish according to halacha.
He has visited Israel and said that he felt very connected to the state, and very much at ease in the country, as welling as feeling a warmth to the people he met, although he is aware that the chief rabbinate will not consider him to be Jewish.
“I want to learn more about the place I’m going to live in, about Jewish traditions and heritage and understand more about the culture of the country,” he said in a telephone conversation from Moscow.
“The first lesson was good and interesting, and I am going to continue with the course, although I am not sure yet if I will complete it and convert once in Israel, it’s too early to think about that yet,” he added.
Rabbi Michael Rosenfeld, 31, is teaching the course in Kiev, and said he was impressed by the group of students in the new class.
“I feel that there is really a lot of will to convert, more than I was expecting, that desire is really there,” said the rabbi.
He said that there were significant differences in the level of knowledge between the students, some of whom “do not even know who Avraham Avinu is.”
Rosenfeld also noted that although some of the conversion candidates are already well connected to a Jewish community and are participating in Jewish life, others have very little connection at all.
Along with the conversion course, the project coordinators in Kiev and Moscow will also assist the eligible Olim who are Jewish according to halacha in collating the relevatn documentation to prove their Jewish status once in Israel.
Many immigrants from the former Soviet Union are halachically Jewish, but due to the lack of religious documentation such as marriage certificates owing to the Communist suppression of religion, have a hard time proving their Jewish status to rabbinical courts in Israel for the purposes of marriage and other religious requirements.
Maslul experts will direct immigrants to the correct archives and government authorities to obtain state documentation from the Communist era which includes national and religious identities. They will also interview grandparents and other family members as testimony which can be used in the rabbinical courts in Israel to prove an immigrant’s Jewish ancestry. This process is also much easier to undertake while still in the immigrant’s country of origin, and is another crucial component of the Maslul project.
“Our institution has targeted the struggle to regulate the personal status of the olim [immigrants] from the former Soviet Union in Israel as its main goal,” said Shalom Norman,director of the Triguboff Institute.
“Maslul is designed to solve this problem before it starts and additionally contribute to the smooth integration of the Olim in Israel.
“When the number of immigrants from Russia and Ukraine is on the rise and the struggles of the ‘90s are coming up again, a project such as this is required. The idea is to use the Olim's high motivation towards their Aliyah before it cools down, which often happens once they arrive in Israel and learn about the dividing political debate about the issues of Religion and state.”
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