To be like everyone else

Australian-Jewish philanthropist Harry Triguboff is working to streamline the integration process for Jews from the former Soviet Union.

Harry Triguboff (third from right) at the opening of the Maslul project in Kiev. Director of the Tigruboff Institute, Shalom Norman, is second from left (photo credit: ROMAN VILENSKI)
Harry Triguboff (third from right) at the opening of the Maslul project in Kiev. Director of the Tigruboff Institute, Shalom Norman, is second from left
(photo credit: ROMAN VILENSKI)
Last month the Knesset held an event marking 25 years since the floodgates of aliya from the former Soviet Union burst open, bringing more than a million-and-a-half people to Israel.
Speaking before an audience of their fellow former refuseniks in the Knesset, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein and Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky called for remembrance of what they termed the “heroic story” of Soviet Jewry.
“The Jewish Agency works every day on seeking to interest Jewish youth around the world in their Jewish identity,” Sharansky said. “As the other speakers have said, it’s a pity that today’s generation doesn’t know the stories of the former Prisoners of Zion and refuseniks.”
Such statements make it seem like the days of Russian-speaking aliya are long behind us. But even today, with more than 7,000 immigrants arriving from Ukraine alone over the past year, the influx continues.
And while those who came during the early ’90s have been here for decades, raising children culturally indistinguishable from their peers, issues of Jewish identity remain.
Many Russian-speakers who grew up under Communism are Jewish according to the Law of Return while lacking the criteria to be considered members of the tribe according to Halacha, religious law. Others, Jewish according to even the strictest rabbinic rules, lack the documentation to prove their lineage in a way satisfactory to Israeli authorities.
Such issues raise the specters of assimilation and intermarriage, while creating frustrations for people – Israeli in every other respect – who cannot marry under the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, which maintains exclusive control over marriage.
Only days before Edelstein and Sharansky made their call for Soviet Jewry remembrance, Australian-Jewish philanthropist Harry Triguboff was in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev to examine the infrastructure being put in place by his eponymous foundation for an undertaking aimed at easing the conversion process for new immigrants.
In February, Triguboff announced that he was going to invest millions in a two-pronged approach to Jewish identity among the Jews of the FSU (former Soviet Union), namely, to work on establishing the Jewish lineage of those making aliya, while at the same time looking for ways to provide much of the educational background for conversion abroad, so as to shorten the time necessary to become halachically Jewish once in Israel.
At the time, Triguboff criticized the Chief Rabbinate’s approach to newcomers, saying that “they are trying to find something that is lacking in the person’s Jewishness. So that’s very bad. Because eventually, the young people will marry each other and some of them will not be recognized by the rabbinate.”
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post by phone from Kiev this October, he asserted that “the problem is getting bigger every day because there are more and more intermarriages,” and that “we can’t have two kinds of Jews.”
“We are working here in Ukraine and in Moscow to prepare the olim to make it easier for the rabbis to recognize them, so that they will be like everyone else and have no problems when they get married,” he said. “It was not made easy for them to be recognized, and we are hoping that by doing what we do, they will be recognized.”
In July, Triguboff’s foundation announced the opening of a new Jewish identity center in Dnipropetrovsk, a major economic center in eastern Ukraine whose Jewish community has provided refuge for their coreligionists displaced by the ongoing Russian-backed civil war in Donetsk.
According to Yakov Gaon, the executive vice president of the national-religious rabbinical association Tzohar, which partnered with Triguboff to open the center, up to a quarter of a million Israelis from the FSU are Jewish according to Halacha but lack the documentation to prove it.
“To preserve a Jewish Israel we try to get them all relevant documentation when they are in Ukraine or Russia, so [that] the process [of absorption in Israel] is more user-friendly and [so that it is] easier to be part of the Jewish people in the Land of Israel,” he said.
According to Rabbi Shmuel Kaminezki of Dnipropetrovsk, proving one’s status often involves traveling to far-flung former Soviet republics and digging through dusty archives, activities beyond the financial wherewithal and organizational ability of many.
“I know many people who have been denied the possibility of making aliya because they just didn’t have enough documents,” he said. “Many people say, ‘I’m really Jewish but won’t be able to prove it, so forget about it.’ It’s a pity.”
“I hope that we will succeed and that others will follow,” Triguboff told the Post. “We want to make Eretz Hakodesh [the Holy Land] a big place, and my only hope is that the business will always be good in Israel so it always attracts many of us. That’s my hope, and so far business is very good.”
Asked about his involvement in Jewish identity issues, he pointed to his long-standing connection with Chabad and Jewish education in Sydney, calling his current efforts a continuation of previous efforts.
“I think that’s very important because once you send a child to a Jewish school, he will be different from the one who didn’t have that opportunity,” he said.
“I was always involved in these things, in the school, in Chabad, and am now involved in conversion. It comes naturally.”
On a day-to-day basis, Triguboff’s efforts are run by Shalom Norman, a white-bearded Israeli of Lithuanian origin.
Norman’s father, a decorated hero of the Battle of Stalingrad, had to circumcise him in secret due to Communist repression, giving his son a visceral connection to the hardships suffered by later waves of Soviet immigration, which he personally helped facilitate as a member of the Israeli government’s Nativ program.
According to Norman, issues of record keeping are compounded by ignorance and the deliberate hiding of Jewish parentage on identity documents by those seeking to advance professionally or academically in the FSU .
“If you had a Jewish mother and a non-Jewish father, you could choose” how you wanted to be registered, he noted. “But you would rather be registered as a non-Jew.”
Regardless of status, however, many of these people consider themselves “connected to the Jewish people” and “as part of the Jewish collective sociologically.”
“I think that it is a task for us to include them in some way for the years to come,” he continued.
Maslul: Easing the path to Israel
Among the programs being run by the Triguboff Foundation is Maslul, a course designed to provide prospective olim with a path for conversion education while they are still in the former Soviet Union preparing for their move to Israel.
It takes up to 400 mandated study hours to be considered ready for conversion by the Israeli Chief Rabbinate and, according to the foundation, such study can best be done while still abroad.
“The majority [of Russian-speaking Jews] want their next generation to be educated as Jewish and be married as Jews. Many would take advantage of a process of conversion if such an opportunity were given to them in an appropriate setting,” said the foundation’s director Shalom Norman. “For some it would be more liberal, for some it would be more accessible, for some it would be just a statement – but for most of them, it is a strong commitment.
The concept is simple. It’s a way to utilize the time before relocation to prepare them… to go through the beit din [rabbinic court] process in Israel for conversion.”
While the foundation is nondenominational, it has been working with Orthodox rabbis, especially those belonging to the more lenient national- religious community, as a way of promoting integration in a manner that can be accepted by the established state religious apparatus.
“We promote any inclusive approach,” said Norman. “I don’t argue Halacha; we have to support any solution that will put the newcomers on a level with the rest of us in Israeli society, so my grandchildren won’t have to check twice if they can marry someone or not.
“Until now, we have worked primarily with Jewish lineage. We tried to deal as effectively as possible with those who were halachically Jews, but weren’t able to prove it. We finalized their status in order to provide them with full statutory identity.”
The new program, however, will focus on those who are not Jewish by Halacha, and will provide them with the opportunity to begin the study process, completing a large chunk of it at “a time when they have more energy and are not involved in the process of absorption” as new immigrants, he said. “There are numerous Jewish people in Ukraine who are interested in making aliya, yet many of them have problems in proving that they are Jewish. We are helping them to convert to be fully accepted by the rabbis as Jewish people. For that you need an organization, which we have formed,” Harry Triguboff explained in a recent interview with Ukraine Today.