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Russian olim and conversion & the Law of Return to Israel


Rabbi Ari Shvat

Tammuz 23, 5777
So it appears that the Law of Return to Israel is currently based on countering the Nuremberg Laws, meaning anyone with one Jewish grandparent may be eligible for Israeli citizenship. However, many of these people are no longer Jewish, either because they were raised as Christians, or as we have seen in the former Soviet Union, they were raised with no religion at all. How many of these immigrants convert to Judaism? And if they don’t convert to Judaism, do they face discrimination in daily life in Israel? Also, would it be better to use Maimonides 13 Principles of Jewish Faith for the Law of Return?
We obviously are against defining one’s Jewishness by any non-halachic criterion, nevertheless, we can understand why the secular government of Israel decided that if a person suffers (e.g. in the Soviet Union) because he is “accused” of being Jewish, the State of Israel, as defender of the Jewish People, feels a moral obligation to come to his aid, even if technically he’s not Jewish. To date, about 1,200,000 citizens have made Aliya to Israel from the former Soviet Union, and statistically about 70% of them are halachically Jewish (to date, it’s the largest Aliya, even more than before or after the Holocaust, and the mass Aliya from the Arab countries immediately following the founding of the State). To date, only some 18,000 have converted. We would like for the remainder to convert, but understandably, coming from a Russian culture, where the name for God is the same word as “ghost” (bugga), it is a miracle that so many have (!) converted (a non-practicing Jew is Jewish, but one cannot convert that way). There’s almost no discrimination against those who don’t convert, and the occasional resentment is identical to the resentment other recent olim feel towards the newer olim (whether halachically Jewish or not, similar to the resentment of some Jews in America towards the “greenhorns” right off the boat after the war, taking away jobs, etc.). The marriage in Israel is under the auspices of the rabbinate, so gentiles cannot officially intermarry with Jews, so either they marry other Russian gentiles, or live together without marriage or go to Cyprus to get married and then their marriage is recognized when they return. As a rabbi, I would be against instituting Maimonides’ 13 Principles of Jewish Faith for the Law of Return, for we want all of our brothers, including the non-religious ones, to come Home to Israel! Judaism is a nationality and family, as much as it is a religion, and especially if the lack of observance is not their fault, we should want them in Israel davka to re-connect them with their religious roots, as well.
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