Welcoming Home Israel’s ‘Lost Jews’
The numbers are in, and they don’t look too good. For the first time in over two decades, it was reported [in April], Israel will likely experience a net negative migration rate in 2007.
In other words, it is estimated that more Jews will actually leave Israel than move here this year-something that hasn’t happened since 1984.
According to figures compiled by the Central Bureau of Statistics, a total of just 14,400 new immigrants are expected here this year, or 5,000 less than the number anticipated to relocate abroad.
Sure, demography is far from an accurate science, and there are plenty of unforeseen, or unexpected, events that can enter into play and alter the tally.
But Israeli decision-makers would be ill-advised to dismiss these warnings out of hand. If the projections do prove correct, it would mark the continuation of an alarming trend that began seven years ago, when the number of people making aliyah began spiraling downward, falling from 61,542 in 2000 to just 19,267 last year.
For a country that was built on immigration, and which faces a unique set of demographic, political and security challenges, this does not bode well for the future.
Indeed, it seems fair to say that aside from the danger posed by our neighbors’ nuclear ambitions, the drying up of aliyah may just be the greatest challenge to ensuring Israel’s future as a Jewish state.
Simply put, we need more Jews.
Thankfully, various Israeli public figures have been sounding the alarm in recent years, stressing the need to bolster Israel’s Jewish population through immigration and absorption by calling on Diaspora Jewry to come home to Israel. But with the pool of potential immigrants from Russia and former Soviet states shrinking rapidly, and large-scale aliyah from the West not yet at hand, the prospects of this occurring appear marginal at best.
Sadly, world Jewry is not in any particular hurry to move here. While that does not mean that Israel should abandon efforts to encourage aliyah, it does suggest that the time has come to start thinking outside of the box and to begin addressing the issue far more creatively than in the past.
The fact is that there is a vast, and largely untapped, reservoir of people clamoring to join, or rejoin, the nation of Israel.
From Poland to Peru, and in places as far afield as Russia, China, Portugal, Spain and Brazil, an extraordinary awakening of momentous proportions is taking place, as various communities with a historical connection to the Jewish people now seek out their roots and long to return to our people.
In many instances, these people’s ancestors were torn away from us against their will, as a result of the oppression and persecution that hounded the Jewish people throughout the centuries of exile.
And now, these communities are all knocking on our collective door, pleading to be allowed back in, whether through conversion or return.
I know because I have visited them frequently in recent years. I have heard their stories and studied their history, and I am now devoting my life to bringing them back to the Jewish people.
As Chairman of Shavei Israel (www.shavei.org), a Jerusalem-based group that assists “lost Jews,” I have launched an outreach effort that now extends to nine countries, with a team of rabbis, emissaries and teachers aiming to reconnect these communities with Judaism and Israel.
This includes the 7,000 B’nei Menashe of northeastern India, who claim descent from a lost tribe of Israel, and the hundreds of thousands of B’nei Anousim (whom historians refer to by the derogatory term “Marrano”) of Spain, Portugal and South America, whose forefathers were compelled to convert to Catholicism at the time of the Inquisition.
In Poland, there are tens of thousands of “hidden Jews” from the time of the Holocaust, many of whom have only recently begun to rediscover and embrace their Jewishness, while in Russia, 20,000 Subbotnik Jews, whose peasant forebears converted to Judaism two centuries ago under the Czar, anxiously wait for their chance to move to Israel.
I have looked on in wonder as descendants of the Jewish community of Kaifeng, China, grapple to come to terms with their heritage in a far-off corner of that massive land.
In the Peruvian Amazon basin, I have been moved by my encounters with the Jews of the jungle, who are seeking to reclaim the religious traditions of their Moroccan Jewish ancestors who settled in the area more than a century ago.
And in the haunting streets of Krakow, Poland, I have met young Poles who only recently learned that their murdered grandparents had been Jews.
Despite the differences among them, these disparate groups all have one thing in common: they face a long and difficult journey back. The barriers to entry remain high, as Israel’s obstinate bureaucracy and world Jewry’s indifference create seemingly insurmountable impediments.
Nonetheless, despite the obstacles, Shavei Israel has succeeded in recent years in bringing over 1,200 B’nei Menashe to Israel, along with several hundred B’nei Anousim and hundreds of Jews from Peru.
Israel’s much-maligned Chief Rabbinate has been supportive of our efforts, providing us with a great deal of guidance and encouragement.
If only the same were true of the rest of the organs of the State. Indeed, if Israel’s government would just remove the various bureaucratic restrictions blocking their arrival, we could bring back many, many more of our lost brethren.
And I have no doubt that eventually we will.
Because the bottom line is that it is in our collective interest, as a nation, as a country and as a people, to reach out to these communities and to facilitate their return. With their numbers, they will strengthen us demographically, and with their passion and commitment to Judaism and Jewishness, they will reinforce us spiritually as well.
The survival of the “pintele Yid,” that hidden Jewish spark buried deep within, in these far-flung lands should also serve to inspire us all. It demonstrates the power not only of Jewish memory but of Jewish destiny as well.
And it underlines the fact that no matter how far a Jewish soul may wander, even to the farthest corners of the world, it can-and ultimately will-find its way back home.
But it is incumbent upon the government to move quickly and to cut the red tape that is holding back thousands upon thousands of “lost Jews” from returning to Zion. Now, more than ever, when aliyah is at its nadir, we should be opening the door and welcoming them back home.
Both for their sake and for ours.