“You are a Jew, Sashinka. V soyuze, (in the Soviet Union) they made us feel dirty and ashamed of this. But you, you will be proud of it.”
I don’t quite remember the first time I heard this. Over the course of my childhood, I must have heard it hundreds of times from my parents in New Jersey and from my Babushka in Israel. I wasn’t sure what ‘Jew’ meant, but I knew two things: That it carried great importance for my family and that it was the reason why Ded Moroz gave me a present but Santa did not. Second only to ‘Jew’ was ‘Israel.’ Here! In the desert! Our people showed them that Jews are not cowards. That Jews could fight. That Jews have a home of their own. Why did people think Jews were cowards? And who were we fighting anyway? I had no idea. But my parents beamed with pride and, at special meals like Novi God, did elaborate toasts to the Jewish state and their family members who served in the Jewish army.
In college, fresh off of Birthright with Rutgers Hillel, I found myself walking on a Friday night through the bitter cold across the bridge separating New Brunswick and Highland Park, on my way to a Shabbat meal, unknowingly trying to answer the questions raised all those years before. It was my first encounter with Orthodox Jews who were not Russian-speaking Lubavitchers. For reasons then unknown to me, a woman who greeted me at the door refused to shake my hand. Fearing I had offended her I quickly came in, took off my shoes, and sat down at the table. There was food on the table but it was unlike any Zakuski I had ever seen. Why was the bread covered? Why did they start singing? Why did they stop? Why is the father putting his hand on his children’s heads and muttering?
In time, and after many shabbatons, the warmth brought to the table melted away what first felt like cold and strange rituals. I formed strong friendships with observant Jews and experienced a growing admiration for this weekly ritual—Shabbat—and the families and communities that come together for it. By the next summer, I had read Pirkei Avot, vigorously studied and debated Jewish laws of property, business transactions, and war at a yeshiva in Jerusalem, and had grown to hold Maimonides with the same high regard as I did Tolstoy. Between Birthright, shabbatons, and a trip to Jerusalem, I began keeping my own kosher kitchen, observing chagim, and hosting Shabbat meals for observant and secular Jews alike. Though a lot of things have fallen by the wayside since college, these rituals have not.
I only wish I could say that Russian-speaking Jews have uniformly felt so welcomed back into the fold.
Israel took in over a million Jews fleeing Soviet anti-Semitic persecution and economic failure but had a peculiar arrangement with them. All of these people were Jewish enough to flee to Israel but not all of them were treated as “real” Jews once they arrived. The most recent symbol of this absurd arrangement was captured in a JTA article declaring that in 2018 under the Law of Return: “Israel announced that Jewish immigrants to Israel were outnumbered by non-Jewish immigrants.”
Were these Christians and Muslims coming to Israel? Nyet. By a slim majority, Jews hailing from the nations of the former Soviet Union are continuing to seek refuge in the Jewish state only to discover the same issue that over 400,000 Russian-speaking Jews learned when they landed: They and their children have no clear way to clarify their Jewish status according to the zealots who have captured the Israeli Rabbinate.
What does it mean to not be recognized as Jews by the Rabbinate? It means that you fled a country where people beat Jews for sport and denied them jobs to come to the Jewish state and be told that, actually, you’re not Jewish enough. You may have parents or grandparents who survived Nazi slaughter and the Soviet gulag. You may have been singled out as a Jew in school for discrimination and violence. Now, in Israel you and your children are subjected to mockery in school that rings very familiar to Soviet ears.
Yet you are still expected to pay taxes to this state. You are still expected to be drafted or to have your children drafted into the military. You and the army of physicists, mathematicians, engineers, and programmers who fled to Israel from all corners of the Soviet empire and helped make terms like Iron Dome and Startup Nation a reality are held at arm’s length. With cultural literacy and personal friendships, you helped transform the relationship between Israel and Russia—the nation that armed every Arab army that ever attacked the Jewish state—into a relationship where its leaders do not challenge Israel’s right to defends itself against Iranian-backed terrorists. All the while, you can’t get married as a Jew in this state. Your children too will not be permitted to marry Jews in this state. Even if you convert, if a relative of yours fails to provide adequate proof that they are Jewish, you could lose your status as a Jew. The warmth of Shabbat that I know so well is replaced instead by a cold institution that offers Russian-speaking Jews no meaningful support to engage with our rich traditions and no easy path to relearn the practices of Judaism for a people force to assimilate at the barrel of a gun. The Rabbinate turns joyful Jewish life events like marriage and the birth of a child into reminders that, despite leaving nations where they were regarded as foreigners to return to the land of our ancestors, Russian-speaking Jews are still outsiders. They still do not belong.
The Rabbinate is failing Jews from the former Soviet Union. In the process, it is creating an enormous rift in the Jewish world and setting a disturbing precedent for the overwhelming majority of diaspora Jews who, like their Russian-speaking brethren in Israel, increasingly do not fit neatly within the narrow definition of Jewishness as defined by the evermore extreme Rabbinate. What is needed is compassion, cultural literacy, and a recognition that the state’s responsibility for bringing Jews back into the fold does not end when they arrive at Ben-Gurion Airport.
Alex Zeldin is a New York-based writer. You can follow him on Twitter at @Wonko_the_sane_.