Israel’s Subbotnik Jews Gear Up for Reunion With Kin Left Behind in Russia

State expected to lift ban on immigration of descendants of Russian peasants who converted to Judaism over a century ago.

Oren Nachson

BEIT SHEMESH – Shimon Shishlianikov immigrated to Israel from a village in southeast Russia almost 25 years ago. His sister was left behind, and they have not seen one another since.

If Israel decides, as expected within the next few weeks, to lift its longstanding ban on the immigration of Subbotnik Jews – the descendants of Russian peasants who embraced or converted to Judaism more than 200 years ago – that could all change.

Shishlianikov belongs to a community of several hundred Subbotniks who moved to Israel in the late 1980s and early 1990s from the village of Visoky and settled in the older, working-class neighborhoods of this city, located about 20 miles west of Jerusalem. Just don’t refer to him as such. “We’re not Subbotniks,” he says emphatically, a big yarmulke covering his head. “We’re Jews.”

It was in 2004 that the former chief Sephardi rabbi, Shlomo Amar, ruled that the Subbotniks were not Jewish enough to qualify for immigration under the Law of Return. That ruling was handed down more than 100 years after Subbotnik Jews had begun settling in the Galilee, where they assumed positions of prominence in the pre-state yishuv. They were later joined by thousands of others who immigrated to Israel in two more recent waves, one in the 1970s and the other in 1990s, together with the rest of the mass aliyah from the former Soviet Union.

“We have an absurd situation today where families were simply split in half – with some here in Israel and others left behind in Russia,” notes Ze’ev Khenin, the chief scientist at the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption, who estimates that somewhere between 10,000 and 12,000 Subbotnik Jews remain in Russia.

Spearheading intensive efforts to resume Subbotnik immigration to Israel are Minister of Immigrant Absorption Sofa Landver and Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky, both Russian-born themselves. Landver is putting the finishing touches on a formal proposal to be presented to the cabinet for approval, under which Subbotniks who agree to undergo an expedited conversion process – in order to relieve any lingering doubts about their Jewish credentials – will qualify once again for immigration under the Law of Return. Israel’s chief rabbis have already agreed in principle to the deal.

The original Subbotniks are believed to have converted to Judaism sometime in the 19th century, although no documentation exists to confirm this. The community had a number of key centers in Russia and Ukraine, and its members were subject to persecution like other Jews. Known to be vigilant about keeping the Sabbath, or “Subbot” in Russian, they were nicknamed “Subbotniks.” The list of prominent Israelis with Subbotnik roots includes Alexander Zaid, the founder of the pre-state Bar Giora and Hashomer Jewish defense organizations; Rafael (“Raful”) Eitan, a former chief of staff and government minister; and Alik Ron, the former police commander of Israel’s northern district.

Shishlianikov, a father of four who works as a lab assistant in Jerusalem, has arrived for late afternoon tea at the modest home of Vitaly Grigorenko, a distant relative who is the unofficial leader of the Beit Shemesh Subbotnik community. A fourth-year biotechnology student, Vitaly, cannot fathom why anyone would question his Jewish roots. “The whole thing is just strange and makes us feel really bad,” says the 27-year-old, who lives with his mother, Maria. “We’re more observant than many Israelis, some of us even have ultra-Orthodox relatives living here in Israel. We serve in the army, we do reserve duty and we’re productive members of society. Some of us can trace our Jewish ancestry back 10 generations. We don’t understand what they want from us.”

No official representative of the government, he says, ever told the Subbotniks what prompted the decision to stop recognizing them as Jews. “We’ve asked, but never received any responses,” he relays.

Settling the Jordan Valley

Aside from Beit Shemesh, another popular destination for some of the relatively recent Subbotnik arrivals is the settlement of Yitav, located in an isolated corner of the Jordan Valley and formerly the site of a kibbutz. About half of the 45 families who live on this moshav, or agricultural collective, are Subbotniks who immigrated to Israel in the 1970s. The man who convinced them all to join him here was Uri Carmiel, chairman of the board of the Jordan Valley Development Fund, among a host of other functionary titles he holds.

Carmiel’s parents had been among several dozen Subbotniks who, in the 1960s, set up their own religious kibbutz in the Caucasus Mountains. It was an experiment they hoped would help them prepare for life in Israel, while at the same time, create sources of livelihood that allowed them to evade work on the Sabbath – one of the key challenges they faced as practicing Jews under a Communist regime.

“For that reason, it was always my dream to live on a kibbutz in Israel,” recounts Carmiel, a burly 50-year-old, who wears a yarmulke on his head and carries a pistol in his belt. With the rest of his family, Carmiel relays, he underwent an expedited conversion before moving to Israel at the age of 15. “The rabbi in Moscow told us it would be a good idea if we wanted to avoid problems when we arrived.”

Although all of Carmiel’s relatives have already relocated to Israel, he says that many families on Yitav are still waiting to be reunited with loved ones, who were denied permission to immigrate to Israel following the rabbinical ruling that challenged their Jewishness.

Officially, Yitav is defined as a religious settlement, which means that desecration of the Sabbath is not permitted in any of the public spaces. “We don’t care what people do inside their own homes, though,” notes Carmiel.

His attraction to communal life, he insists, should not be misinterpreted as nostalgia for the Communist regime he left behind. “Take a look at the roofs on our homes here,” he motions. “Notice that there are no red roofs. They’re all green – right? That’s because we don’t allow the color red here.”