Zionism Brought Them, but Halakha Rejected Them

Yelena and Victor Albertman, new immigrants from the former Soviet Union, were married a year and a half ago in Bulgaria. They had no other choice - Victor is a Jew on his mother's side; Yelena is Jewish on her father's side. The joyless wedding in a foreign land legalized the bond between them, but failed to address a painful problem: the couple has two children, a 7-year-old girl and a 2-year-old boy, and they are not considered Jewish.

The Albertman family, who live in Lod, is one of tens of thousands of families who have found themselves on the inevitable collision course between the Zionist ethos and halakha. The Zionist ethos eagerly brings them here by the Law of Return; the halakha laws reject them upon arrival.

If their younger son marries a Jewish woman, his problems will be over. However, the Israeli-born girl who will be considered an Israeli but not a Jew - unless she converts - will have even greater difficulty than her mother understanding the labyrinth she was born into. As a woman and a mother, she is destined to perpetuate her problem for generations. This is mainly because some 90 percent of the immigrants from former Soviet states tend to marry among themselves. Therefore the chances of a child born to new immigrants - who is not Jewish according to halakha - marrying a spouse from the Russian-speaking community are high. Neither they nor perhaps their children will be able to marry in Israel for generations to come.

"We don't think about it much, because it hurts," says Albertman, who is formulating a civil code for the Democratic Choice party. "Maybe the children will choose to convert in the future. That's an option too, although it is not normal and not democratic. In America there are Jewish streams that recognize people as Jews if their father is Jewish. That does not seem realistic in Israel, but other solutions could be found. My wife and I love Israel and have chosen to live in it. It only needs to be changed. We need a revolution."

No revolution is in sight, but perpetuating the problems certainly is. Professor Arnon Sofer from University of Haifa says that statisticians estimate that 400,000 non-Jewish Russian speakers will be living in Israel by 2020, compared with 300,000 today. Perpetuating the problem will make the distress more acute. If a mixed couple arriving in Israel today finds it hard to cope with the discrimination, it would be even harder to explain to the children born here that they may be Israelis, but don't really belong to the Jewish community.

Already the plight of the halakhically non-Jewish youth is intense. Even new immigrants' organizations don't like talking about it, but the ratio of non-Jewish juvenile delinquents in the immigrant youth community is especially high. The easier conversion courses offered by the IDF provide only a partial answer.

"For years the Reform Movement in Israel has been pushing the option of recognizing people whose fathers are Jewish as Jews, as they do in the U.S. - but in vain," says Reform Rabbi Gregory Kotler. "The movement in Israel is more conservative. If we had enough courageous Orthodox rabbis, there is even support for it in the halakha. But ultimately they all fear what Rabbi Ovadia Yosef will say."

Kotler, 37, is familiar with the problem. He immigrated from Ukraine in 1991 and became the first Reform rabbi from that wave of immigration. For the last four years he served as the Reform Movement's envoy in Russia.

"You don't have to create a new social minority in Israel," he says sadly. "Immigrants devoid of any religious `categorization' have opened synagogues in homes in Ashdod and Ariel. A person with religious needs who is rejected by one religion turns to another," he says.

Jewish Agency Chairman Zeev Bielsky believes that the stories about conversion difficulties - such as Jewish soldiers' burial difficulties - that reach former Soviet states have a bad influence on immigration to Israel.

"It would be wrong to try to convert them there, before their immigration," he says. "It could be interpreted as missionary work, something no sovereign state would tolerate."