TEL AVIV (JTA) – In Israel, the “non-Jewish Jews,” as some Israelis call them, are everywhere. They drive buses, teach university classes, patrol in army jeeps and follow the latest Israeli reality TV shows as avidly as their Jewish counterparts.
For these people – mostly immigrants from the former Soviet Union who are not Jews according to Israeli law – the question of where they fit into the Jewish state remains unanswered nearly two decades after they began coming to Israel.
At an estimated 320,000 people and with their ranks growing due to childbirth, the question is growing ever more acute.
“They are not going to be religious, but want to be part of what is called the Jewish secular population,” said Asher Cohen, a political scientist at Bar-Ilan University who has written a book on the subject.
“Thousands are being born here and they are no longer immigrants. They are raised just like their secular neighbors and these children want to know why they are not Jewish because their mother is not Jewish,” he said. “The problem is just getting worse.”
In almost every respect, these Israelis live as do their secular fellow countrymen, even marking the Jewish holidays, lighting candles on Chanukah and conducting Seders on Passover. But, because they do not qualify as Jews according to halachah, or Jewish law, they are treated differently when it comes to matters that are the purview of the Orthodox-controlled religious establishment, such as lifecycle events like marriage, divorce and burial.
For some, the real question is about identity and fitting in.
Unlike non-Jews residing in Israel illegally, these are people who qualified to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return, which grants the right of Israeli citizenship to all descendents of a Jewish grandparent or those married to such persons. But the Israeli government does not consider them Jews because their mothers are not Jewish. Non-Jewish Israelis constitute almost a third of all immigrants from the former Soviet Union.
Some of these people say they’ve always considered themselves Jewish and were thought as such by others – until, that is, they came to Israel.
Lilia Itskov, 36, grew up in Siberia with a paternal grandmother who preserved the traditions of her observant Jewish home. She said she is heartbroken when her daughter questions whether they are Jewish because Itskov’s mother was not Jewish.
“She studies the Bible in school; it’s all she knows,” Itskov said of her daughter. “She cannot understand why she is not considered a Jew.”
Itskov, the Haifa branch coordinator of the Association for the Rights of Mixed Families, an organization that promotes the rights of mixed-religion families in Israel, says she observed Jewish holidays even back in Siberia and she never tried to hide her Jewishness.
“I want people to understand we are part of this country and where we lived before we were always considered Jews,” she said. “And now, after so many years, I am told that I am a goy.”
Others are believing Christians who struggle to maintain their religious identity while living in Jewish communities in Israel. Keeping a low profile, many of them attend religious services on Sundays in community members’ apartments or go to Arab-run Christian churches in Jerusalem and Jaffa on major holidays. In the Israeli Arab village of Abu Ghosh, near Jerusalem, there are church services held in Hebrew.
“Little is known about them, there is no research about them and they try to hide their faith,” Cohen said of the active Christians among the Russian-speaking immigrants. “It’s hard for them to be Christians in any overt way here.”
For Vera Gorman, 21, whose family immigrated to Israel from Russia seven years ago and whose mother’s grandfather was Jewish, the sting of exclusion hit for the first time when it came time to marry.
In Israel, where there is no civil marriage, all citizens must be married by clergymen, and Jewish clergy are not allowed to perform intermarriages. Vera is Jewish but the man she planned on marrying, Maxim Gorman, was not, so there was no way for the couple to get married in Israel. Instead, they had to go to Prague. Marriages abroad are recognized in Israel.
Vera said she and Maxim were angry and bewildered by the rules.
Maxim, 25, who served in an IDF combat unit and twice was injured in fighting in Gaza, said he does not understand why, if he spilled blood for his country, he had to go to abroad on the most important day of his life.
“It was especially hard because although I am not Jewish according to halachah, I do feel Jewish in my heart,” he said. “In my opinion, state and religion simply do not go together. Israel needs to be democratic and Jewish, and we need to protect our traditions because this is what unites us. But we live in the 21st century and we need to be going forward.”
Some Israelis, especially religious ones, take issue with the large number of non-Jews able to become Israeli, saying they threaten the Jewish character of the state.
They complain about the rising number of butchers that sell pork and condemn the proliferation of Christmas trees, tinsel and plastic Santa Claus dolls that go on sale at shops around the country around Christmastime to cater to the growing population in Israel that celebrates the holiday.
Russian immigrants – Jews among them – say they’re not so much celebrating Christmas as participating in festivities honoring the new year.
A few rabbis and members of Orthodox parties in the Knesset have suggested changing the Law of Return to exclude non-Jews from becoming Israeli. But many secular Israelis argue against such changes and say immigration is vital to the country’s future.
Despite the challenges they face in Israel as non-Jews, only a minority of non-Jewish immigrants to Israel choose to convert to Judaism.
Because Orthodox conversions are the only kind accepted by the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, which controls religious law in Israel, prospective converts must master Jewish knowledge and pledge to become strictly observant Jews. Most immigrants from the former Soviet Union – both Jewish and not – are secular and uninterested in enduring a lengthy, restrictive conversion process.
To try to deal with the problem, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s office announced this week that it was adopting recommendations to help restructure the conversion process to increase the number of religious court judges officiating in conversion cases and drop the demand that converts become religious Jews as a condition of the conversion. Olmert’s office hopes these changes will prompt more immigrants to choose to convert.
The army is also trying to ease the conversion process. Nativ, a program sponsored jointly by the Jewish Agency for Israel and the government, is known for its welcoming attitude toward prospective converts and focuses on soldiers who are immigrants from the former Soviet Union. To date, it has shepherded about 2,000 soldiers through the process.
Daniel Gordis, vice president of the Shalem Center, a Jerusalem think tank, says the question is not so much whether the immigrants are Jews according to halachah but how the state treats them.
“How do we reach out to these people to help them see their connection to Judaism as the unfolding story of the Jewish people in this land?” he said.