‘Almost Kafkaesque’: For These American Jews, Moving to Israel Is Becoming a Nightmare

A little-known rule change has turned immigration into a bureaucratic minefield for second-generation U.S. Jews with roots in the former communist bloc

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New immigrants from the Ukraine land in Israel
New immigrants from the Ukraine land in IsraelCredit: GIL COHEN-MAGEN / ADL / AFP

Contemplating a permanent move to Israel from the United States, newlyweds Joe and Sarah Rashba decided to come for a trial period to see if they liked it. After a successful spell in Jerusalem, last summer they applied for citizenship and immigrant status through Nefesh B’Nefesh (the organization responsible for aliyah from English-speaking countries). Like all applicants from English-speaking countries, they were asked to produce a letter from their local rabbi confirming that they were Jewish, which they did.

Sarah was quickly notified that her application had been approved. A decision on Joe, however, was still pending. The issue, as the 26-year-old University of Pennsylvania alumnus would soon discover, was that his parents were born in Moscow.

The Israeli Interior Ministry official, who had taken note of that detail on his application form, immediately flagged it for further review.

Joe Rashba's aliyah turned into bureaucratic nightmare due to a little-known rule regarding second-generation U.S. Jews with roots in the former-USSRCredit: Moti Milrod

Joe thought there must have been some mistake. After all, like his wife, he was born in the United States. His parents, along with his older sister, had moved there in 1991. He grew up in Boston, where his family belonged to a Conservative synagogue and he attended the local Solomon Schechter Jewish day school. He even participated in a special gap year program in Israel for Jewish-American teens.

And yet, for reasons unclear to him, he was being told he needed to undergo more stringent background checks to determine that he was Jewish and, therefore, eligible for aliyah – the type of background checks typically reserved for immigrants from the former Soviet Union. The letter from his rabbi back home was not enough.

“My initial reaction was confusion,” Joe tells Haaretz. “After all, I’m an American citizen, I was born in the United States, I visited Russia only once in my life, and I don’t identify as Russian in any way. So there was something almost Kafkaesque about the way this country had decided for me that I was Russian.”

Months went by and Joe’s application was still not approved. He was starting to feel anxious, because by then he had received an attractive job offer and did not know for sure whether he would be allowed to remain in Israel permanently.

“I was scared that my livelihood would be at risk because of this bureaucratic decision,” he recounts. Meanwhile, his wife had become pregnant and it was not clear whether, even assuming everything eventually worked out, he would have been a citizen long enough to qualify for paternity benefits.

At some point, it was suggested he might want to apply for citizenship and immigrant status through Nativ – the government agency that processes requests for applicants from the former Soviet Union. He was warned, though, that this process would be far more cumbersome, as Nativ requires applicants to produce the original birth and marriage certificates of their parents and, in many cases, even their grandparents. Often, such documents are hard to come by and require trips back to the region so that old archives and town records can be accessed.

Joe began collecting whatever old family documents he could that would prove his Jewish roots. At the same time, he began the tedious process of filling out the application form required by Nativ. It was a 14-page document, all in Russian. “It took hours, and I needed someone to help me with it because my Russian is very basic,” Joe recalls. “The funny thing is that it would have been much easier for me to fill it out in Hebrew.”

Joe Rashba: I’m an American, I was born in the U.S. and I don’t identify as Russian. There's something Kafkaesque about Israel deciding for me that I'm RussianCredit: Moti Milrod

‘Threatening phone call’

Last month, a week after he had submitted his application to Nativ, Joe was notified by Nefesh B’Nefesh that his aliyah application had finally been approved. So he was surprised a few weeks later to receive a phone call from an official at Nativ, informing him that his application process was advancing to the next phase. When Joe explained that it was no longer relevant, the woman on the line “got very upset and wanted to know who had approved my application, because she said they had no authority to,” he relays.

Joe refused to provide the Nativ official with any names. “What I can say is that it was a very threatening phone call,” he says.

Last week, nearly six months after he submitted his application to Nefesh B’Nefesh, Joe finally received his immigrant certificate, validating his new status.

According to Israeli officials engaged in immigration promotion, Joe’s case is not unique. In fact, they say, since last summer about half a dozen aliyah applicants have reported similar ordeals.

They chalk it up to a new, yet little-known, regulation pertaining to individuals who were born in Western countries, but to parents from the former communist bloc. According to this new regulation, these individuals are required to apply for aliyah not through Nefesh B’Nefesh or the Jewish Agency – as had been the practice previously – but through Nativ.

Although its impact is limited at the moment, this new regulation could be relevant in the future for tens of thousands of individuals with roots in the former communist bloc, as well as their offspring, interested in making Israel their future home. (To qualify for aliyah, an individual must have at least one Jewish grandparent, a Jewish spouse or have been converted in a recognized Jewish community.)

Nativ, which operates under the auspices of the Prime Minister’s Office, was set up in the 1950s to serve as a liaison between the government and Jews living behind the Iron Curtain. In recent decades, it was put in charge of reviewing and approving applications for aliyah from the former communist bloc, where it operates a network of Russian-speaking envoys. The Jewish Agency is responsible for reviewing and approving applications from all other countries worldwide.

This division of power came about because Jewish Agency officials did not typically possess the experience or skills required to evaluate applications from the former communist countries, where assimilation rates were high and Jews were forbidden from practicing their religion for many years.

Russian Jews arrive in Israel. Nativ was set up in the 1950s to serve as a liaison between the government and Jews living behind the Iron CurtainCredit: Tomer Appelbaum

Not all Jews who emigrated from the former Soviet Union ended up in Israel. Many went to the United States and Canada, and many others to Western Europe, especially Germany, as well as Australia.

This raised a question: Who was responsible for determining the eligibility of those applying for aliyah if they were born in the former Soviet Union but had meanwhile moved to another country – the Jewish Agency or Nativ? The question was crucial because of the very different processes involved: Applying for aliyah through Nativ was known to take much longer and involve far more bureaucracy.

In 2007, the government decided that Nativ would be responsible for all such cases. What it did not spell out, however, was who would be in charge of second-generation Jews – people like Joe.

Until quite recently the assumption had been that the Jewish Agency would be in charge, and this was never challenged. That is, until this past summer, when a “second-generation” application crossed the desk of an Interior Ministry clerk – who proceeded to call Nativ to find out how it should be handled. (The Interior Ministry officially has the final say in approving aliyah applications, though it usually relies on recommendations from the Jewish Agency and Nativ.) The ministry was notified that all such cases must from now on be processed through Nativ’s offices and not the Jewish Agency’s.

‘Bureaucratic nightmare’

V., who asked that her name not be published, endured a similar ordeal as Joe. But her story has a different ending.

After waiting many months for a decision on her aliyah application, this Harvard graduate gave up and left Israel a month ago, together with her Israeli-born boyfriend. The day before her flight back to the United States, she was notified she had been approved for aliyah. By then, though, it was too late.

“When I finally had my meeting at the Nativ office,” she recounts, “I was asked what I was doing there. When I told the clerk I would like to receive status in Israel because I’m Jewish, her response to me was: ‘Well, that’s a bold statement.’”

Before her latest stay in Israel, V. had participated in a program run by Masa – an organization that runs hundreds of educational, volunteer and internship programs in Israel. To qualify for a Masa program, an individual must be deemed eligible for aliyah. When V. notified Nativ that she had already been screened by Masa, she says their response was that the organization had “made a big mistake.”

Rabbi Seth Farber, the executive director of ITIM, an organization that advocates for immigrants, played a key role in getting the applications of both Joe and V. eventually approved. He says he is aware of other such cases still pending approval.

“ITIM is already coordinating with Knesset members and the [Interior] Ministry to change the new regulation so that second-generation Jewish immigrants can continue to make aliyah unencumbered by unnecessary bureaucracy,” he says. “Unfortunately, many people just give up when they face such a bureaucratic nightmare. Israel can and must do better than this.”

According to a 2013 Pew Research Center survey of Jewish Americans, some 300,000 adults born in the former Soviet Union and living in the United States are eligible for aliyah. Prof. Emeritus Sergio DellaPergola, a leading authority on Jewish demography, believes the number is higher but not as high as the 750,000 figure that is occasionally circulated. He does not believe the number of American-born children of migrants from the former Soviet Union is very high because of relatively low fertility rates among the population. “But clearly this is a scandal, a violation of the Law of Return [which governs eligibility for aliyah] and a classic case for the High Court of Justice,” he says, referring to the recent change in the rules regarding this population.

New immigrants from the U.S. arrive in IsraelCredit: Shachar Azran, Nefesh B'Nefesh

Asked for comment, a spokesperson for Nativ says the organization is authorized to determine the eligibility of all aliyah candidates with roots in the former Soviet Union. In countries where it has no permanent representatives, it says it operates “in coordination” with the Jewish Agency.

Nefesh B’Nefesh spokeswoman Yael Katsman tells Haaretz: “We fully understand the challenges that many of those applying for immigrant status are facing, and are deeply sympathetic to their frustrations and concerns with the current process. We are committed – and it is our sincerest hope – that we will see a comprehensive solution in the very near future.”

The Interior Ministry said that there is no change in policy and that “second-generation” Jews of Russian origin are required “to fill out a form at the Jewish Agency, together with all the forms required of immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

“All these documents are transferred to the Liaison Office [Nativ], and the response is provided by the Jewish Agency,” it added.

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