Fundamentally Freund: More than just Sabbath Jews

Persecuted for two centuries in Russia as Jews by choice, some Subbotniks are now being denied by Israel the right to make aliya.

michael freund 88 (photo credit:)
michael freund 88
(photo credit: )
Tomorrow may prove to be a fateful day for thousands of Russian Jews being prevented from moving to Israel by a cold-hearted bureaucracy. After months of delay, the Supreme Court is at last due to hear a petition regarding the 20,000 Subbotnik Jews of Russia, many of whom have found it increasingly difficult in recent years to get permission to make aliya. Families have been divided, and loved ones forced to put their plans on hold, as a rather uncivil civil service has placed numerous obstacles in their way, often applying inconsistent, and even contradictory, criteria to their applications. But unlike three decades ago, it is not Soviet officials in Moscow or Leningrad who are the cause of this painful problem. Incredibly, it is none other than Israel's government which is blocking their aliya, making the Subbotnik Jews the last remaining Refuseniks still stuck in the former Soviet Union. It is time for this injustice to be corrected, and for Israel to open the gates to the remnants of this unique community. THE STORY of the Subbotniks began more than two centuries ago, when a number of Judaizing sects developed among farmers and peasants in southern Russia. While remaining Christian, many adopted various Jewish practices, particularly the observance of the Subbot, or Jewish Sabbath, hence the name Subbotniks. But among them was a group which went a step further, leaving behind the Russian Orthodox faith entirely and formally converting to Judaism. They referred to themselves as "the Gerim," using the Hebrew word for converts, and practiced Judaism openly. These Subbotnik Jews observed Torah law, married Russian Jews, and some even sent their children to learn in the great yeshivot of Lithuania and the Ukraine. Becoming a Jew in Czarist Russia was a noble act of faith, but it obviously carried great risks too. And soon enough, the Subbotniks were forced to pay a heavy price for embracing Judaism. According to the late Simon Dubnow, the great historian of Russian and Polish Jewry, Czar Alexander I learned of the existence of the Subbotnik Jews in 1817, when they petitioned him to complain about the anti-Semitism they were suffering "on account of their confessing the law of Moses.' The Czar became enraged. Not at the fact that some of his subjects were persecuting Jews, of course, but rather because some of them had chosen to become Jews. So he issued a series of cruel decrees against the Subbotniks, which culminated in their deportation and expulsion to the far reaches of the empire. DESPITE ONGOING Czarist persecution and subsequent Soviet oppression, the Subbotnik Jews stubbornly clung to their Jewishness. Many were murdered by the Germans after the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. Communism also took a heavy toll, and in recent decades, a growing number of the Subbotnik Jews have succumbed to assimilation and intermarriage, posing a threat to their future as Jews. That is why it so essential that Israel act quickly to allow the remaining Subbotnik Jews to make aliya - before they assimilate completely and disappear. In the past decade alone, hundreds of Subbotnik Jews from the village of Vysoky in southern Russia have moved to Israel, while thousands of other Subbotniks came during the great wave of aliya from Russia which took place during the 1990s. Prominent figures in our nation's modern history, such as the late IDF Chief of Staff Rafael (Raful) Eitan, and the legendary Alexander Zaid, a pioneer of the Second Aliya who founded the "Hashomer" Jewish self-defense group a century ago, were of Subbotnik descent. BUT IN recent years, Israel's Interior Ministry and the Liaison Bureau, an arm of the Prime Minister's Office which oversees immigration from the former Soviet Union, have inexplicably all but halted the Subbotnik aliya. The result is that hundreds of Subbotnik Jews in Vysoky, and thousands more in other communities throughout Russia, now find themselves left behind. They include Lubov Gonchareva, a 48-year old resident of Vysoky and the mother of three children. Lubov's parents made aliya several years ago, were recognized as Jews by the Interior Ministry, and her mother even obtained a ruling from the Jerusalem Rabbinical Court attesting to her Jewishness. But when Lubov herself submitted an application to make aliya four years ago, her request was turned down on the grounds that her husband was not Jewish. Hence, she was told, she had "lost" the right to move to Israel, even though her parents were living as Jews and Israelis in Beit Shemesh, outside Jerusalem. "I was born a Jew and I live as a Jew, as do my children," Lubov told me, as tears welled up in her eyes. 'The State recognized my parents as Jews, so how can it now do this to me and to my children?" That question will come before the Supreme Court tomorrow, when the justices will hear a petition filed on Lubov's behalf by Shavei Israel, the organization that I chair. I hope that the court will see right through the callousness of our clerks, and allow Lubov and her children, and others like them, to make aliya. The Subbotniks are Russia's forgotten Jews. After everything that they have gone through over the past two centuries, we cannot and dare not turn our backs on them. They have struggled valiantly to survive, and the vestiges of this community wish to come home. Now is the time to enable them to do so, before it is too late.