Removing an immigrant's Jewish standing

A religious court that an immigrant who came to Israel 30 years ago and was certified as Jewish no longer is.

ATTORNEYS NITZAN CASPI-SHILONI (left) and Susan Weiss after a Supreme Court hearing. (photo credit: RACHEL STOMEL)
ATTORNEYS NITZAN CASPI-SHILONI (left) and Susan Weiss after a Supreme Court hearing.
(photo credit: RACHEL STOMEL)
Last week, the Supreme Court was scheduled to begin discussing a case with potential impact on all immigrants to Israel and their children. The decision was postponed for a month at the request of the State Attorney’s Office, which represents the rabbinate and Religious Services Ministry. This gives us time to consider its implications.
The case involves the spurious ruling by a religious court that an immigrant who came to Israel 30 years ago and was certified as Jewish no longer is. Nor are her IDF-veteran children and grandchildren.
Those of us born in the Diaspora who fulfilled our dream of marrying in our beloved State of Israel can recall the awkward time when we were called upon to prove our Jewishness.
Only in retrospect do I realize how fortunate I was that my mother’s elderly childhood rabbi in New London, Connecticut, was still well and literate and could write a letter affirming the Jewishness of my grandfather Moshe Lubchansky and, more importantly, my Eastern European-born, Yiddish-speaking, cholent-serving grandmother Esther.
They immigrated to the US from Novardok in 1899 – at least I think so. They never learned English well, and when they were asked where they were born, they shrugged and said “Poland.” Fortunately, a rabbi in Israel knew my mother’s rabbi, probably from Europe. One of the New London kosher baker’s dozen children lived in Tel Aviv and happily went with me to the religious court to describe Moshe and Esther’s household, including Moshe’s volunteering to construct coffins for the synagogue congregants.
By then I had an Israeli rabbi who assured me this checking was the normal process, and I would look back at it decades later with good humor. After all, authenticating newcomers as Jews is important.
But what if I had to give details today about my great-grandmother? That’s the challenge given me by Susan Weiss, who heads the Center for Women’s Justice (CWJ), which is bringing the case above to the High Court of Justice.
I give it a try. With the help of the Internet and some family trees, I find two of my four great-grandmothers without much trouble. The critical one – my maternal grandmother’s mother – eludes me. I check genealogical sites, Ellis Island ship manifests of her children, like my grandmother, who came to America.
Unsure of her maiden name, I check possible spellings with similar names on Yad Vashem’s site (which corrects for language differences) of Holocaust victims from her town. Was the name Suchovitizki or Zhukhovitski or neither of the above?
I have Grandma Esther’s naturalization certificate from 1944, but there’s no mention of religion, of course – this is America – and no mention of her maiden name.
Her younger brother Harry, who owned a New London haberdashery, simplified the name to Smith, which is a hard name to track.
I make a short list of relatives to contact who might give me a clue. I also check the obituaries of all of the relatives who might have supplied this information decades ago. Nada.
But lucky me, this is just a challenge I fail for the meantime. It has no impact on my life – unlike the lives of the family members whose fate will be determined soon by the Supreme Court.
Here’s their story, with their names changed.
YULIA MADE aliyah in 1989, right before the fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent waves of immigration from the former Soviet Union.
She fell in love and went with her fiancé to the local rabbinate to register for marriage.
Of course, she had to undergo the de rigueur investigation of her Jewishness. In the Soviet Union ethnicity was listed on birth certificates, but Soviet documents always had to be backed up. The wise rabbis of Tiberias phoned Yulia’s mother and questioned her to their satisfaction in Yiddish. The bride and groom could be married by an Orthodox rabbi under a huppah.
Yulia and her husband have two daughters – we’ll call them Lena and Anna. The family made a Seder on Passover and lit candles on Hanukkah. The daughters both served in the IDF. Each registered through the rabbinate when she got engaged, each undergoing an additional investigation of her Jewishness because of her Russian Jewish heritage. Orthodox rabbis presided at their weddings.
But then, unhappily, Anna’s marriage collapsed. In 2016, she returned to the rabbinate to get a divorce. In one of the heated hearing exchanges in the Ashdod Rabbinical Court, her inflamed husband shouted to the judge, “She’s not even Jewish.” Now that, the judges decided, was a charge they needed to investigate.
Said CWJ attorney Nitzan Caspi-Shiloni, who is presenting the case to the Supreme Court, “Instead of taking a divorcing person’s outburst as a typical maneuver to gain the court’s sympathy, the court opened a Jewish investigation of her and the whole family. Anna and her mother, Yulia, had to start all over proving their Jewishness, with many of the principal witnesses no longer alive.” Authorized solely to adjudicate in Lena’s divorce case, the Rabbinical Court judges nonetheless summoned the entire family into court to dig up their Jewish roots.
Examining the now more than 70-year-old Soviet birth certificate which had been reviewed by the rabbis 30 years earlier, a newly hired forensic team found a suspicious smudge, maybe an erasure on the paper! The rabbinate’s response: immediate erasure of the Jewish status of the family. Their marriages become null and void. The family should return to Russia!
Caught in this surrealistic juggernaut, Anna and Yulia have acquired more proof. Yulia’s brother’s birth certificate says he’s a Jew without any clerical smearing. And there’s a rabbi in Russia who knows the family from way back.
The rabbis of Ashdod shake their heads. No new evidence allowed.
Yulia tells the court how her father worked on the Soviet railroad and smuggled in matzah, but the details of the underground Jewish life under the Soviet regime have become foggier over the decades. The Ashdod Rabbinate’s hired detective can’t corroborate.
The CWJ (full disclosure – I sit on its volunteer board) was contacted for help by Anna’s husband, a traditional Jew who is flummoxed by his wife and children’s struggle.
I’m flummoxed, too.
Jewish women are already vulnerable to extortion by divorcing husbands who withhold Jewish bills of divorce.
Imagine having to worry that your entire family’s lineage might be erased!
I’m counting on the High Court to strike down the overreach of the Rabbinical Court. That this case needs the Supreme Court to rule is a stain on our society and desecration of Judaism.
The writer is the Israel director of public relations at Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. Her latest book is A Daughter of Many Mothers.