(photo credit: REUTERS)
A group of American Christians, mostly of Russian origin, plan to convert to Judaism and establish kibbutz- style communities in Samaria – and MK Lia Shemtov (Israel Beiteinu) is eager to help them.
The group’s leader, Russian-language radio host Baruch Avrahamovich of Portland, Oregon, said on Thursday that around 1,000 people are interested in coming to Israel and living as Jews in the northern West Bank.
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“My mother is Jewish, but I was raised all my life as a Christian. A few years ago, as I was about to start a family, I started to track my family tree and I discovered my Jewish roots,” Avrahamovich told Shemtov during a meeting between the two last week in Eilat.
Avrahamovich said that his “great-grandfather was killed, and his execution order said that he was a Jew, but all of the other papers proving my Jewish heritage are gone.”
His connection with Judaism was strengthened by his participation in Birthright-Israel and Masa youth tours.
“Ultimately, I understood that Judaism is the true religion, and that my life’s mission is to have Christians immigrate to Israel and convert.”
Born in the former Soviet Union, Avrahamovich built a reputation working in community radio in Portland, encouraging members of the local Russian-speaking community to participate in Birthright programs to reconnect with their Jewish heritage.
“Everybody knew me in the community. I began to advertise these free Birthright trips for the Jewish members of the community, as well as those with Jewish heritage,” he explained.
As Avrahamovich’s message and program gained popularity with community members they faced a strong backlash from church leaders, he said. At the same time, listeners began contacting him – inspired both by re-discovering their Jewish heritage, and by his call to return to what Avrahamovich calls “the true religion of the Bible.”
Religious leaders from 70 churches called last July to boycott him and his message, he said.
“They attacked us in the media, but caused the exact opposite effect: Many Christians with Jewish roots joined us and asked to take part in our journey to the Holy Land.”
The radio host and businessman said he initially tried to simply strengthen ties to Israel, but as his supporters felt more and more ostracized within the Russian- immigrant community, they began to push to relocate to Israel. Avrahamovich, in turn, asked his supporters to sign statements of intent.
“The people who signed the papers said to go to Israel and talk to the politicians there so that we can come here to live as Jews and become Jews officially,” he explained. “I came to Israel to explain our situation to politicians, but found it difficult, so I called a mutual acquaintance who gave me Lia Shemtov’s number.
“The most important thing was to get the Samaria Council and rabbis to agree with us, because we want to come here and move our families here because it is hard to live in the Portland community, even if it is a large one. But we understand that we’ve been lied to our entire life – we know that what we knew is not right, but we don’t know what we do need to know.
That is why we decided that we must move to Israel for our children and give them a new life and new future.”
Shemtov said she was inspired by her meeting with Avrahamovich, and promised to work to further his dream of establishing communities of converts in Samaria.
“To bring hundreds of educated, white-collar and financially strong immigrants will help in the development of Samaria and to reinforce it as an inseparable part of the State of Israel,” Shemtov said.
“These are people who want to undergo Orthodox conversions, to help improve the economy – and even to serve in the IDF.”
Shemtov arranged a meeting between representatives of the Samaria Regional Council and Avrahamovich.
According to Shemtov, council representatives said that as long as the group converted according to Halacha, and came to Israel under the Law of Return, they would be happy to have them settle in Samaria.
She has also committed to working within her own party – which controls the Immigrant Absorption Ministry – to facilitate the arrival of Avrahamovich’s community.
The MK has yet to formulate a detailed plan, including what type of visa the immigrants – many of whom do not qualify for the Law of Return – would use. In addition, sources in Shemtov’s office acknowledged that their initial absorption might not be in Samaria, but that they might live in kibbutzim, or in Jerusalem, while studying after their arrival.