Ghosts of Soviet Jewry are strengthening Israel's Jewish future

Ghosts of the Jewish past in the former Soviet Union are helping ensure the integrity of the Jewish people in Israel.

OTH SERGEI AND NITZAN wanted to get married in a Jewish wedding, but they knew from the outset that they would have a problem proving his Jewish status (photo credit: TZOHAR)
OTH SERGEI AND NITZAN wanted to get married in a Jewish wedding, but they knew from the outset that they would have a problem proving his Jewish status
(photo credit: TZOHAR)
Nitzan and Sergei are happily married newlyweds, enjoying life together in Israel after recently tying the knot in a Jewish ceremony in accordance with Jewish law and recognized by the Chief Rabbinate.
But their ability to marry in this way was by no means a foregone conclusion, and although from their point of view there was no possibility they would not commit to live their lives together, there was a serious concern that they would not be able to have a Jewish marriage that would be recognized by the religious establishment in Israel.
If not for exhaustive research into Sergei’s family history, including the fate of his great-grandmother murdered in the Nazi massacre of tens of thousands of Jews at Babi Yar in Kiev during the Holocaust, and what became of his great-grandfather in the Soviet Red Army, Sergei would never have been able to prove he was Jewish and marry as a Jew in the Jewish state.
Because Sergei was born in the former Soviet Union in present-day Ukraine (Nitzan was born in Israel), and like many of the more than a million immigrants from that region, he had severe difficulties proving he was Jewish, due to the Soviet repression of religious life during Communist rule, including religious marriage.
Without Jewish marriage certificates, proving the Jewish identity of Soviet Jews to the satisfaction of the Chief Rabbinate and the Rabbinical Courts has become a serious problem for the approximately 800,000 immigrants from the Soviet Union who declare that they are indeed Jewish.
According to the Shorashim organization, which is dedicated to helping immigrants from the former Soviet Union and their descendants prove that they are Jewish, almost every single person from this community experiences difficulties in proving his or her Jewish status when approaching the Chief Rabbinate to register for marriage or for other religious services.
This represents a huge problem for the integrity and unity of the Jewish people in the Jewish state because, as Shorashim investigator Rabbi Shimon Har Shalom puts it, the real test for the integration of an immigrant community is if it marries among the natives.
If large numbers of Jews from the former Soviet Union are ultimately unable to marry other Jewish Israelis, then the Jewish people in the State of Israel will ultimately face severe fracture.
The mission that Shorashim, a branch of the Tzohar rabbinical association, has undertaken is therefore to help those who need to prove their Jewish status by means of exhaustive investigations and research into their family histories, Soviet documentary archives, and other sources to help establish their Jewish ancestry to the satisfaction of the state Rabbinical Courts, which ultimately rule on such matters.
These investigations are, however, frequently very complex and difficult, as Sergei’s case demonstrates.
During a visit to Ukraine last month by Shorashim officials and supporters, Sergei, Nitzan and Sergei’s mother, Larissa, recounted their story.
Sergei and his family became aware that they were actually Jewish only when his grandmother told them they were in the early 1990s, after the fall of the Communist regime, having hid the information for many years due to antisemitic sentiment and unfavorable attitudes and conditions for Jews in the Soviet Union.
They moved to Israel under the Law of Return, Sergei joined the IDF when he was 18 and eventually became an officer in an elite unit. He and Nitzan met after his army service and eventually decided to get married.
Both Sergei and Nitzan, whose family came from Yemen and is religiously traditional, wanted to get married in a Jewish wedding, but they knew from the outset that they would have a problem proving his Jewish status, and approached Shorashim for help a good deal of time head of their wedding date to help them deal with the challenge.
Although the Communist regime repressed religious life, Soviet documentation did record the nationality of its citizens, such as Ukrainian, Lithuanian, Georgian, and all the other nations which were part of the Soviet empire, and Jews were recorded as being of Jewish nationality.
This Soviet-era documentation is now widely accepted by the Rabbinical Courts as proof of Jewish status if it is proved to be authentic, and lack of such documents declaring the Jewish nationality of a person’s predecessors is a big obstacle in proving Jewish status.
Sergei’s great-grandmother Luba married a non-Jewish man, and they had two daughters. Her husband registered the entire family as Ukrainian in the relevant Soviet offices, and this is where Sergei’s problems would begin, since his grandmother was now registered not as Jewish but as Ukrainian.
Sergei’s grandmother and his mother both married non-Jews, and all of their descendants were registered as Ukrainian.
The Shorashim investigator appointed to the case was able to obtain a birth certificate of Sergei’s grandmother Tamara, which stated that her mother, Sergei’s great-grandmother, was Jewish.
However, this was a reproduction of the original document, and the Rabbinical Courts and the Interior Ministry insisted on using original documentation since Tamara’s documentation registered her as Ukrainian.
Further complicating the case was the fact that when Sergei’s great-grandfather was killed fighting in the Soviet Army against the Nazis in 1944 during World War II, Shorashim discovered that the notice of his death was not sent to Luba but to another woman, who was not Jewish.
This presented a severe problem for the case since it seemingly cast doubt on the basis of Sergei’s Jewish ancestry.
Shorashim’s investigator spoke with Sergei’s grandmother Tamara, but she was very young during the time of the war and was unable to cast any light on what had happened.
The investigator decided to look into Yad Vashem’s archives to try to find testimony of other family members that could explain the situation, a tool frequently used, and indeed found testimony submitted by Tamara’s sister, Rachel, Sergei’s great-aunt, about their mother, Luba.
Rachel was older than Tamara at the time of the war and knew what had happened to her mother and father, and why the death notice had been sent to another woman entirely.
A disconnect between the two sisters meant that Sergei’s grandmother Tamara had never been aware of what had happened.
Shorashim’s investigator met with Rachel in Kiev, where she detailed how her mother, Sergei’s great-grandmother Luba, had been murdered by the Nazis at the Babi Yar massacre in Kiev in 1941 along with more than 33,000 other Jews from Kiev in just two days.
The Nazis issued a notice before the massacre for all Jews in Kiev to preset themselves at a location just outside the city, ostensibly for deportation, decreeing that any Jew subsequently found inside the city would be summarily shot.
Luba had gone with her two daughters and her mother-in-law to the assembly point, from where the masses were taken off to be murdered at the Babi Yar ravine, but Luba sent her daughters back home with her non-Jewish mother-in-law before they were ordered to start walking to Babi Yar.
Luba was murdered, but her daughters survived the rest of the war, and her husband remarried before he was killed in action in 1944, thus explaining why the death notice had been sent to his second wife.
Once Shorashim had established the full picture of what had happened, together with the documentation that was available, it compiled a written statement for the Rabbinical Court which was accepted and Sergei’s Jewish status was affirmed, clearing the way for his marriage to Nitzan.
Nitzan, Sergei, and his mother, Larissa, all visited the Babi Yar site last month during Shorashim’s visit to Ukraine and lit memorial candles for Luba and the other thousands of victims.
At the site, Sergei noted the tragic historical reality that it was his great-aunt’s testimony to Yad Vashem about the genocidal Nazi crimes at Babi Yar designed to wipe out the Jewish people that had ultimately helped Shorashim confirm his Jewish heritage.
ACCORDING TO Shorashim director Uri Shechter, the organization now deals with some 2,500 cases a year, and has resolved 15,000 cases in total.
Shechter says that although there are some 800,000 Jews from the former Soviet Union who will have or have had severe difficulties proving their Jewish status, if between 50,000 to 70,000 of these people succeed in proving their Jewish status, that will be enough to prove the Jewish status of everyone else by extension of family ties.
Shechter says that the Rabbinical Courts accept “99%” of Shorashim’s recommendations.
He says that in approximately 10% of cases it turns out the individual is not Jewish according to Jewish law – that is, his or her mother is not Jewish.
Shorashim investigators search out various forms of Soviet-era documentation, including civil birth, death and marriage certificates, and documentation from universities, the Communist Party, and the Soviet security services, while they make use of the Yad Vashem archives as well.
They also conduct interviews with family members, especially grandparents, to obtain their testimony about their Jewish life before the crackdown on religion began before the war, with fluency or familiarity with Yiddish a strong indicator of Jewish roots.
However, the Rabbinical Courts are extremely insistent that some form of original, Soviet documentation is included in virtually every Jewish status clarification file of immigrants from the former Soviet Union to prove the generational chain of Jewish ancestry is intact.
And criticism has been voiced of this policy, since it endangers the Jewish status of perhaps many thousands of Jews who do not have this documentation and sidelines tools available in Jewish law to decide that someone is Jewish.
The Shulhan Aruch, a central codex of Jewish law compiled in the 16th century, famously states that “all families have a presumption of being kosher, and one can marry with them a priori.”
And the late Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, one of the most revered and respected arbiters of Jewish law in recent times, ruled specifically that “in principle, immigrants from Russia who declare themselves to be Jewish are trustworthy, although nevertheless, if there is a reason to believe that their declaration is not correct, one needs to investigate well.”
False declarations were made, and forged documents were used, by non-Jewish Soviet citizens to gain the right to immigrate to Israel in the 1990s, because of Israel’s more favorable economic conditions.
But, according to Tzohar chairman Rabbi David Stav, the now approximately 400,000 non-Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union who are Israeli but not Jewish according to Jewish law state that they are non-Jewish.
And those 800,000 who claim to be Jewish no longer have an ulterior motive to do so, since they are already Israeli citizens.
“If you were to go in accordance with Rabbi Ovadia’s ruling, it would have been possible to close down Shorashim yesterday. You don’t need Shorashim,” says Stav, meaning that almost anyone who claims to be Jewish should be believed.
“If I had been elected chief rabbi, I would have adopted the ruling of Rabbi Ovadia, apart from in especially problematic cases,” says Stav, who made an unsuccessful bid for chief rabbi in 2013.
But, he says, “the Chief Rabbinate does not follow the rulings of Rabbi Ovadia, in many issues actually,” and notes that the opening left by Yosef’s ruling, that investigation is needed if there is well-substantiated doubt, made room for the Chief
Rabbinate to cast suspicion on the Jewish status of all Jews from the former Soviet Union.
Stav says that “if there is a claim against Shorashim, it is ‘Why does Shorashim help the rabbinate?’” and that if Shorashim would not assist the Rabbinical Courts in terms of its policy of finding documentation, then perhaps there would be such chaos that the rabbinate would capitulate and revoke this demand.
“We are not anarchists like this, however,” says the rabbi. “We understand that hundreds and thousands of people are suffering, and therefore we are helping the rabbinate implement its policies and help to prove the Jewish status of all these people.”
Yet critics of the Rabbinical Court’s policy insist that there will be large numbers of people in the future who will not be able to obtain the requisite documentation, and whose Jewish status will therefore be endangered.
Indeed, there has even been a growing phenomenon of late in the Rabbinical Courts in which the Jewish status of some immigrants from the former Soviet Union has been revoked years after it was originally affirmed by the Chief Rabbinate, based on concerns about their documentation which arise when another family member goes to register for marriage or other religious services.
Furthermore, in recent years the Chief Rabbinate has blacklisted dozens of Orthodox rabbis whose credentials to affirm the Jewish status of former congregants for the purposes of marriage in Israel it does not accept.
Such critics also point out that large numbers of US Jews, millions perhaps, do not have the ketubot, religious marriage certificates, of their grandparents and great-grandparents, and worry that the Rabbinical Courts policy on Jewish status clarification, which Shorashim assists with, could in the future be expanded to regions outside of the former Soviet Union.
Shorashim argues, however, that there will always be some form of documentation, primary, secondary or tertiary documents, available to its inspectors to include in the Jewish status clarification file.
But Har Shalom does state that as the years go by, the generation of grandparents and great-grandparents who can recall their Jewish roots and traditions, and who have their original documentation, is passing.
“The older generation is dying, and the documents are disappearing, and people didn’t see a reason to preserve these documents.
“Already today, after 13 years of Shorashim’s existence, the number of hard, complicated cases has increased, and already today most cases are harder to solve and resolve than 10 years ago.”
For that reason, the organization encourages immigrants from the former Soviet Union to deal with their Jewish status issues as soon as possible, so as to ensure that as much documentation and testimony as possible is available for their use.
Shechter says that out of the 800,000 Jewish immigrants, the critical mass of people Shorashim still needs to reach is between 200,000 to 250,000, bearing in mind the elderly, those already married, and those whose Jewish status has already been proven.
If, from that group, 50,000 to 70,000 are able to definitively prove their Jewish status in the Rabbinical Courts, then the entire problem will have been resolved, he says.
“The majority of Israelis are religiously traditional people who still want their children to marry a Jew and get married under a huppah,” says Shechter.
“If these people cannot marry in a Jewish ceremony, then we are going to lose them to the Jewish people. As much as 15% of Israeli Jews could be lost like this. What Hitler didn’t manage, we will allow with this silent Shoah.
“The majority of these people are Jewish, and it is our job to prove it.”