Jerusalem Center Goes to Extreme Measures to Help Russian Immigrants Prove Their Jewishness

Institute serves as international investigation agency helping hundreds of young people from the former Soviet Union prove their Jewishness to the rabbinic courts.

Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger
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Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger

Yigal Tashker, who was born 30 years ago in Kiev and has lived in Israel since the age of 7, learned a few months ago that for him and his fiancee to get married he would have to prove his Jewishness to a rabbinical court. Though he was listed as Jewish in the Population Registry, that wasn't going to be good enough for the marriage registrar where he lived.

Tashker would have been in a serious bind had someone not referred him to the Shorashim center a project being described here for the first time, which helps Israelis from the former Soviet Union prove their Jewishness.

Yigal Tashker holding a Soviet document that identifies his mother as Jewish.Credit: Moti Milrod

Based in Jerusalem, the six-year-old institute serves as an international investigation agency, which, by doing intensive research and establishing a wide network of contacts, has helped hundreds of young people from the former Soviet Union prove their Jewishness to the satisfaction of the rabbinic courts, enabling them to get married without having to go through a conversion or marry abroad.

The project has the active support of former Mossad chief Efraim Halevy, who described the large number of Israelis whose Jewishness is under suspicion as "an existential threat." It is funded by the Prime Minister's Office, the Toronto Friendship Association and the Triguboff Foundation, founded by Harry Triguboff of Australia. Shorashim's director is Rabbi Shimon Har-Shalom.

Tashker's case is an example of how far Shorashim will go to resolve "the Jewish question."

Tashker couldn't find any relevant family documents here in Israel. His mother's mother had been born in 1914 in Poland, but was taken to Russia during World War I. Har-Shalom flew to Moscow, where he was able to find helpful documents in various archives, and met with Tashker's aunt, his mother's twin sister, who also provided crucial papers and information.

According to Tashker, along with the official documents, what helped convince the rabbinical court was an old clipping from a Russian newspaper that reported on female relatives, including his grandmother, who had participated in a Jewish event. The rabbinical court gave him the kosher stamp, and he and his fiancee, Irena, were married a week and a half ago.

Immigrants from the former Soviet Union fall into two categories: Some 320,000 are citizens under the Law of Return but are not Jews (most are listed as being "of no religion" ), while 750,000 are registered as Jews in the Population Registry.

Har-Shalom estimates that, in the latter category, between 150,000 and 200,000 will be forced to prove their Jewishness at some point, while some 20,000 of those with "no religion" are actually Jewish and would be able to prove it.

For Russians, however, coming up with this proof can be extremely difficult after generations of being cut off from Jewish communities, under conditions that often forced them to hide their Jewishness, and the inevitable resulting assimilation.

"We're actually still dealing with the results of the Holocaust," Har-Shalom tells Haaretz, because that cataclysmic disruption of Jewish life broke family ties and destroyed so much documentation," he says. "The Holocaust is still a live issue as we make all our inquiries and investigations. Almost everyone who comes to us is a victim of the Holocaust in that it is hard to prove he is Jewish, even though he is."

The work of Har-Shalom and his team of investigators demands special types of expertise. "First of all, we deal with genealogy, investigating one's origins and family tree. We must try to establish a continuous line of Jewish maternity, since that's what the halakha [Jewish religious law] demands," Har-Shalom explains.

To build a reliable family tree, "we must have an excellent command of Russian, and also know Yiddish, along with all the dialects," he says. "We need to know history - Jewish history, the history of the czarist empire, and Soviet history, with a stress on the Holocaust and Stalin era.

"We have to know the geography of the former Soviet Union, which is a sixth of the world's land mass, because Jews wandered from coast to coast in this vast area. We need connections in today's Commonwealth of Independent States and in other countries, particularly with rabbis and Jewish communities, who help us get documents.

"We also need a background in halakha and be involved with the Israeli rabbinate, to understand how the rabbinic courts here work," Har-Shalom says. "Fortunately, we have built a trusting relationship with them."

In its six years, Shorashim has handled thousands of cases. So far in 2011, the center has taken on 550 cases, and has successfully obtained rabbinical court approval of Jewishness in 90 percent of them.

According to Shalom Norman, who oversees the Triguboff Foundation's activity in Israel, a case that comes to Shorashim can cost anywhere between NIS 1,000 and NIS 10,000 to conclude, depending on whether a researcher has to fly to Europe or the former Soviet Union to obtain documentation.

"We are engaged in the art of the possible, and it's a race against time," says Norman. "As time passes, it will be harder for people to find the family documents or take testimony from the elderly grandmother, and as time passes there will be places in the former Soviet Union that will become harder to work with."

He estimates that in five years, most immigrants from the former Soviet Union will have no choice but to undergo conversion.

But until then, Shorashim will fight to prove every case, because proving Jewishness has many advantages over conversion. Not only are some ultra-Orthodox elements suspicious of conversions conducted by the rabbinate, but also, while a convert "resolves the problem" only for himself and his future children, proving a person's Jewishness also proves it for his siblings and often for his cousins, as well.

"Proving Judaism is like a table that everyone can eat from, both the Haredim and the secular," says Norman.

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