Rabbinate’s Cold-Shoulder to Russians

What if 300,000 members of an unknown ethno-European tribe claiming descent from Jewish ancestors were discovered?

And what if, given the right circumstances, they were willing to affiliate with Jewish civilization, learn Hebrew, serve in the Israel Defense Force and imbue their lives with traditional Jewish values?

The good news is these potential Jews do not have to be airlifted to Israel; they are here in Israel from the former Soviet Union, under the Law of Return. Moreover, they serve in the army, pay taxes and have already enriched society.

The bad news is Israel has done precious little to absorb them into the Jewish people. Once it became clear that this “ethno-European tribe” would not jump through every hoop demanded by the religious establishment and that most were unwilling to lead Orthodox lifestyles, Israel’s ultra-Orthodox, non-Zionist state rabbinate callously turned its back on them.

Not unlike their African, Indian and South American counterparts, these “lost” Jews of the former Soviet Union had long been cut off from their heritage. Over some 70 years, when not overtly oppressed, they were discouraged from studying Torah and observing the festivals. Rampant intermarriage ensued, and as a consequence, many are not halachically Jewish.

Broadminded, Zionist-oriented, Orthodox rabbis exist who would be willing to convert potential Jews even if they do not commit to Orthodoxy. Yet they are held in disdain by the religious establishment.

It is in this context that we must consider efforts to bring to Israel all 7,232 members of the lost tribe of Bnei Menashe from northeastern India. Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit is not keen on facilitating their aliyah, though consultations are continuing between his ministry, the Prime Minister’s Office, the Absorption Ministry and the Jewish Agency. Officials are also considering the sensitivities of the Indian government and relations between Jerusalem and New Delhi.

Meanwhile, last month, thousands of Ethiopian immigrants demonstrated outside the Knesset demanding that 8,700 Falash Mura — descendants of the community that converted under duress to Christianity — be brought to Israel. The official rabbinate supports their cause and stands ready to convert them because they, too, are willing to commit to Orthodoxy.

The government’s approach on the Falash Mura — namely, that individuals who qualify for aliyah under the Law of Return should be brought to Israel on a case-by-case basis — is wise considering that the 120,000-strong Ethiopian community itself and a number of its leaders have reservations about bringing the Falash Mura over en masse.

The absorption of the Beta Israel has not been an unmitigated success. Some are college graduates, IDF heroes, even diplomats and Knesset members. Still, there are serious problems, especially among the youth, with truancy, alcoholism and drugs. And some 65 percent of Ethiopian families remain dependent on the welfare system.

This being the case, the advocacy groups now calling for additional Ethiopian immigration ought to commit themselves to a similar passionate involvement in the community’s ongoing absorption. The same need for an ongoing commitment applies to the Bnei Menashe as well.

A Zionist, I want to see ever-increasing numbers of Jews making Israel their home. Yet it is disingenuous for the Orthodox establishment to encourage aliyah from Africa, Asia and South America because immigrants from those places are more theologically pliable, while tens of thousands of potential Jews already here from the former Soviet Union are still getting the rabbinate’s cold shoulder.

At the end of the day, all potential Jews need to be given the necessary tools and encouragement to make an affiliation with Jewish civilization inviting. And those desirous of making a formal commitment to Judaism need the appropriate options for conversion — Orthodox, traditional or progressive.

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