Finding roots in Russia

Shorashim director: We thought it was just about getting Jews out of the Soviet Union – but it’s not.

DORIT GOLENDER, Israeli ambassador to Russia 390 (photo credit: Courtesy Shorashim)
DORIT GOLENDER, Israeli ambassador to Russia 390
(photo credit: Courtesy Shorashim)
MOSCOW – The people behind the Israeli organization Shorashim are a cross between bespeckled librarians and Jewish Indiana Jones: No far-flung Ukrainian village is too remote, no archives are too dusty to find a long-forgotten document. They are scrambling against time, the enemy that is slowly erasing the past.
The six-year-old Shorashim organization traffics not in priceless antiques, but in proving Jewish identities to the Rabbinate, Israel’s religious governing body. After the fall of the Soviet Union, 1.1 million Soviet Jews immigrated to Israel under the Law of Return, which requires just one Jewish grandparent on either side in order to be considered Jewish.
Jewish law, however, traces Jewish identity through the mother’s lineage only.
Approximately 320,000 of the émigrés are practicing non-Jews who have no desire to change their status to Jewish. But a large part of the remaining 700,000 identifies as Jewish.
Most never realize there is any doubt about their Jewish identity until they are required to provide documentation to the Rabbinate at two points in their life: when they are married, and when they are buried. Because Jewish identities were hidden or not recorded during the 70 years of communist rule, Soviet Jews have no ketubot (wedding contracts), burial notices from Jewish burial societies or official documents identifying them as Jewish.
Some young couples who get frustrated with the process of proving their Jewish identity in front of the Rabbinical Court give up and marry outside of Israel. This means that if their children want to be recognized as Jewish, the next generation must undergo a long conversion process.
Enter Shorashim. Funded by Jewish Australian billionaire Harry Triguboff, whose parents fled from the former Soviet Union, the organization dedicated a permanent Office for the Clarification of Jewish Status in Moscow on Monday to track down documents and witnesses that confirm Jewish identities. Property manager mogul Triguboff, considered one of Australia’s 10 richest men, previously directed his philanthropy efforts in Israel to large-scale water purifying plants and other large infrastructure projects.
“We did so much to bring [Soviet Jews] here, and now look how we’re treating them, like second-class citizens,” said Shalom Norman, the director of the Harry Triguboff Fund. Norman was also involved in negotiations to bring Jews to Israel in the 1980s and ’90s.
“We thought it was just about getting Jews out of the Soviet Union,” said Rabbi Shimon Har Shalom, the director of Shorashim, who worked in Ukraine for three years as a representative of the Rabbinate. “But actually, it’s not over, now we need to create equality so Soviet Jews can marry anyone and do anything they want.”
Shorashim, which is under the auspices of the Israeli religious freedom activism group Tzohar, is rooted in the ideology that immediate action must be taken to avoid a demographic shift in Israel toward a non-Jewish majority.
Conversion is a long and complicated process. It is also expensive: The state’s annual budget for conversion is NIS 40 million.
Approximately 2,200 people go through the state’s conversion process each year, 800 in the framework of the army – at the cost of more than NIS 18,000 per person.
Proving Jewish identity is a much cheaper alternative. Shorashim has finished more than 2,000 investigations into Jewish identity since they started six years ago. Each investigation can affect up to five people, because the same documents can be used to prove the identity of an entire family. After receiving a request for help, Shorashim combs local archives for old ID papers, birth certificates and death announcements. They interview witnesses, including neighbors or distant family members still living in the country, who can attest to whether or not a family was Jewish. Each investigation is different, but generally, three pieces of evidence are required to prove Jewish identity. Many people come to Shorashim with one document, but need additional evidence.
In more than 80 percent of the cases, Shorashim is able to find enough proof that the Rabbinate confirms the Jewish identity, the organized reported. Shorashim finished 560 investigations in 2011, nearly double the amount as in 2010. The organization distances itself from the politics of the situation – the political infighting of the Rabbinate, the claim that the bureaucratic process of “proof of Jewish identity” is offensive or unnecessary. Instead, it races to gather as much information as possible before witnesses die or bankrupt archives are liquidated.
But the organization must also proceed carefully to avoid offending the very community it is trying to assist.
“Suddenly having to prove you’re Jewish, it’s irritating,” said Rabbi Pinhas Goldschmidt, the Chief Rabbi of Moscow’s largest synagogue, the Moscow Choral Synagogue, at an event on Monday celebrating the opening of the Moscow office. “It’s like someone who’s been practicing medicine for 30 years and suddenly they demand his credentials.
Until now, it was clear to them that they’re Jewish. People don’t like having to go through this clarification,” he said.
Norman faults Israel for not doing more to remedy the situation in the early 1990s, just after the major wave of FSU Jews arrived.
Now, Shorashim is scrambling to reach the Soviet Jewish community both in Israel and abroad, especially in Australia and the US.
Approximately 480,000 Jews from the former Soviet Union live in the US.
The lack of proof also affects FSU Jews living abroad and their children, who want to get married or make aliya.
“In other countries, community rabbis can determine if you are Jewish,” explained Har Shalom. “But in the former USSR, there were no communities, and there were no community rabbis.”
Therefore, even Soviet Jews living in the US are required to find documentation from the Soviet Union, not their community in the US. Shorashim already deals with a few requests from America, but is trying to raise awareness in Diaspora communities around the world.
On Monday, stylishly dressed Muscovites bundled in exotic fur hurried outside in -19 degree Celsius weather, relatively balmy for Moscow in January. Inside a coffee shop, Norman, Har Shalom, and Yaakov Shumiatsky, the Rabbinate’s main contact person in Russia and the head of Goldschmidt’s office, celebrated the opening of the Moscow office and talked shop about Shorashim’s most interesting cases. They can sit for hours over cups of strong black Russian tea, each trying to outdo the next with complicated tales of dual identities, confounding conversions and halachic quandaries.
There was G., a Ukrainian woman who made aliya as a non-Jew, but whose uncle was documented as Jewish. It turned out that the grandmother, a highly skilled artist, had painted over the nationality part of her daughter’s birth certificate, from “Jewish” to “Ukrainian” in 1954, to avoid political problems. Armed with the grandmother’s testimony, Shorashim took the document to a forgery expert. The Rabbinate also employs investigators to research claims of Jewish identity, but it does not have the resources to meet with witnesses in Israel, much less abroad, or pursue expensive avenues such as forgery experts. The forgery of G.’s mother’s birth certificate was recognized, and G. and her brother were both confirmed as Jewish.
Another success story is A., a 25-year-old woman born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, who discovered three weeks before her wedding that the Rabbinate needed more evidence proving her Jewish identity. Her mother had fled Israel and her grandmother was hospitalized in a vegetative state, so no one in the country could testify on her behalf.
Shorashim reached out to its contacts in Uzbekistan, who were able to find documents proving the Jewish identity of her family for the past five generations, and A. was able to get married in a Jewish ceremony on her original wedding date.
“And there are times when we have to find proof of Judaism and organize a get [Jewish divorce] at the same time,” said Shumiatsky, “And not just one get. Sometimes it’s two, or three...” Three? “Yes, we had one situation where we had to organize three gets. Her new husband didn’t know she had been married before,” he chuckled.
As globalization increases and Jews spread out to more corners of the world, marrying different groups of Jews and non-Jews, questions of identity, ethnic roots, and proof of Judaism only become more complicated.
Despite the fact that this proof is really only necessary twice during a lifetime, during marriage and burial, religious identity runs deeper than the bureaucratic processes, and is important to many people on an emotional level, said Norman. Lack of documented proof is an administrative stumbling block that ostracizes large swathes of the population, he explained.
Norman called the technical issues surrounding proof of Judaism “the big tragedy” and warned that an entire generation of Jews could be lost.
“They went through 70 years of communism, what some call ‘The Red Holocaust,’” said Norman. “We brought them here, but there is one thing left we haven’t been able to do, and that’s why we’re here.”
The reporter was a guest of Shorashim in Moscow.