Ingathering: Soviet Jewry Comes Home

In the summer of 1989, I left my home in Jerusalem for a reporting assignment in Europe, covering the fall of Communism from Warsaw to Berlin to Prague. A year later, I returned to a different Israel. Hundreds of thousands of “Russians” – as Israelis called anyone who had lived in the former Soviet Union – were coming, the largest mass immigration to Israel since the 1950s. In the supermarket there were strange cheeses and yogurt drinks labeled with Cyrillic writing, and unimagined products like frozen blueberries and cherries. On the streets, young musicians played cello and old men with gold teeth played mandolin and accordion. The country suddenly felt as though it had become both less intimate and more claustrophobic: My daughter’s first-grade class was packed with 40 children to accommodate the immigrant influx.

I joined the staff of the recently founded Jerusalem Report magazine and was given the Russian beat. My editor, Ze’ev Chafets, told me that we Israelis are opening our home to a massive influx of strangers, and none of us knows anything about who these people are. And so, I went out to learn. I sought stories: a couple struggling to stay together as the husband became increasingly religious and his half-Jewish wife increasingly bewildered; the editor of a new Russian-language Israeli newspaper who had sat in the Gulag for Zionist activity but who felt himself an outsider to the Jewish story; a celebrated organist who divided his time touring Europe and working as an Israeli garbageman.

The early 1990s not only brought a million Russian immigrants to Israel but tens of thousands of Ethiopians, who had been gradually arriving through the previous decade. The two immigrations were opposing images of each other: the Russians, with impressive secular education but the least Jewish knowledge of any immigrant wave; the Ethiopians, with little secular education but deep religiosity. Many Russians had come to Israel because it was as far West as they could reach; the Ethiopians had come to Zion. Inevitably, they regarded each other with suspicion and even loathing. In one absorption center I visited near Haifa, Russians and Ethiopians had to be housed in different areas after coming to blows.

“Why did Israel bring these primitives here?” a Russian man said to me, genuinely perplexed.

“For the same reason we brought you here,” I tried to explain. “Because you’re all part of the Jewish people.”

He laughed at my naïveté. “You brought us because we’ll be good for the economy,” he said. “The Ethiopians are just a burden.”

I wondered how these people would find their place in an Israeli story that they didn’t seem to understand.

But Israel too was unprepared for the encounter. How would a population of barely four million house and employ a million immigrants? We seemed about to squander one of the greatest gifts Israel had ever received.

In a cartoon in the Jerusalem Post, satirist Yaakov Kirschen responded to the growing number of unemployed immigrant doctors:  “Too many doctors? Nonsense! Not enough sick people!” He proposed an American Jewish campaign to “get sick for Israel:”  Instead of fundraising dinners, good Jews would gather to eat contaminated food (“I’ll take the spoiled mayo!”) and then fly to Israel for treatment by a Russian doctor.

With growing signs of imminent social and economic crisis, my reporting became increasingly urgent. I met with homeless immigrants who set up a tent encampment in a park at the entrance to the northern town of Carmiel, and who wondered, reasonably, why they had come to a country that couldn’t even house them. Government ministers spoke of moving immigrant families into army barracks.

In Ofakim, a forlorn town in the desert that had inexplicably attracted a large Russian population, I went to report on the first day of school. I found two little sisters wearing big bows that marked them as comically un-Israeli; they held hands, terrified, as other children laughed. Each wave of immigration had its own experience of dislocation when arriving in Israel. What traumas were we inflicting on the newcomers, on ourselves?Bottom of Form

And yet, none of the dire predictions happened. Immigrants seemed to have effortlessly slipped into the middle class. Outsiders of course were only vaguely aware of the years of hardship that preceded immigrants’ entry into the middle class: extended families sharing small apartments, exhausted parents working two or more jobs while grandparents raised the children. (The Russian grandmother should have received the Israel Prize for her contribution to immigrant absorption.)

The Russian immigration helped to prevent Israeli decline. At the end of the 1980s, Israel was barely managing to contain the Palestinian insurrection that became known as the First Intifada. The war in Lebanon had turned into a quagmire. The economy was only fitfully emerging from hyper-inflation. We were a deeply divided society, governed by a barely functional “unity” coalition of Likud and Labor, neither of which could form a government on its own. Israel seemed stuck, adrift.

And then, unexpectedly, came this massive influx that included a substantial part of the professional and cultural elite of a superpower.. Not since the aliyah from Germany of the 1930s did Israel experience such an infusion of educated immigrants. We didn’t always know how to wisely use this gift, and we will never know how many brilliant careers were casualties of the exodus. Nevertheless, the immigrants infused Israel with creativity and excellence, and they helped prepare the way for Israel’s leading role in technological innovation and entrepreneurship. The immigrants began to figure out where they had landed, far more quickly than I thought possible, “absorbing” us more profoundly than we ever understood them.

One of the best explanations of Zionism I heard came from a middle-aged immigrant who told me she had landed in a country and in a story she knew nothing about. Whatever vague assumptions she’d had as an assimilated Soviet Jew were upended by Israeli reality. What, I asked her, was your biggest surprise? Without hesitating, she replied, “Stupid Jews. In Moscow all the Jews were smart, either intellectuals or engineers. And then I come here and meet stupid Jews. Many stupid Jews. I felt very depressed. And then I understood: In Moscow, we were a minority and had to be better than everyone else to be as good. Here, though, we’re the majority, and we can be a normal people.”

One poignant indication of Israelization was when my daughter’s Russian friends, all of them single children when they arrived in Israel, became older siblings. The decision of Russian families to bring another child into the world—atypical in the failed society of the Soviet Union—was a sign not only of their growing economic success but of their internalization of the Israeli ethos. Soviet Jews had fled a blasted landscape, the spiritual equivalent of Chernobyl; it took them only a few years to understand that they had come to a country that believed in the future.

What we learned about the Russians was their extraordinary resilience. They were, after all, survivors of Hitler’s killing pits and Stalin’s gulag, of fire and ice. Even as Saddam Hussein’s Scud missiles fell on Israeli cities, the Russians continued to come, exhausted immigrants joining a sleepless country. When their children came of age a decade later, with the Second Intifada, Palestinian suicide bombers blew up on our streets. A disproportionate number of casualties were Russian, since many of the bombings happened on buses, and relatively few Russians then owned cars. In no small measure, Russians became Israelis by fulfilling the rabbinic adage that the Land of Israel is acquired through suffering.

One of the worst atrocities of the Second Intifada was the 2001 suicide bombing of the Tel Aviv disco, Dolphinarium, killing 21 people, most of them Russian teenagers. A few days later I visited the largely Russian high school in Tel Aviv where many of the victims had studied. Students lit candles at a memorial display of photographs of their friends. I asked the young people, some of whom had just arrived in the country when the suicide bombings began and still spoke Hebrew hesitantly, how they were coping. Their restraint was stunning: this is the situation, they said, we’ll deal with it. The stoicism of the Soviet grandparents had passed to their Israeli grandchildren.

This was our least “Jewish” aliyah, the most pragmatic. In some ways it was more an emigration than an exodus. Decades of Communism had seemingly succeeded in dejudaizing what had once been the world’s most Jewishly creative community—giving birth to Ḥasidism and the literary Yiddish and Hebrew renaissance and Zionism.

And yet many of the immigrants were, in their way, profoundly Jewish. There remained a deep and visceral Jewishness, nurtured by anti-Semitism.  Soviet Jews often held fast to one or two rituals, symbolic rejection of their erasure as Jews. Each family determined its own quiet resistance: daring enter the city’s last remaining synagogue to procure matzah for Passover, transmitting to one’s child a Yiddish song, secretly listening to Israel Radio, illegally circumcising a son. The power of Jewishness: a single thread, a stubborn memory, obstinate pride, spite: We will remain Jews precisely because you want us to disappear.

In absorbing a million Soviet emigres in the 1990s—preceded by the heroic first wave of 200,000 immigrants in the 1970s, many of them “refuseniks” who fought to leave the Soviet Union and prepared the way for relatives and friends two decades later—the state of Israel completed its historic mission of retrieving the world’s persecuted Jews. The first stage was bringing Holocaust survivors home. Then came the Jews of the Middle East. (Imagine their fate today if they had remained in Syria, Yemen, Libya, Iraq.) And finally came the most improbable retrieval of all, the absorption of Soviet Jews, who only a few decades earlier had seemed lost to the Jewish people.

Sometimes I return to the early years of the Soviet Jewry movement and try to imagine what our reaction might have been had we been able to glimpse the end of the story. No doubt we would have been astonished to see the fulfillment of every one of our far-fetched predictions: American Jewry would be roused from its apathy and disunity and defeatism; Congress would link Soviet trade to Jewish emigration; the Soviet Union would be vulnerable to external pressure; Soviet Jews would overcome repression and fear and defiantly reclaim their Jewish identity; and all of this would end in a mass exodus. And yet, we believed, we knew; we would not have been astonished at all.

Before he died, blind and nearly forgotten, at age eighty-seven in 2014, Yaakov Birnbaum tried to create a Soviet Jewry Liberation Day that would preserve the memory of the struggle. He envisioned a day devoted to teaching its lessons—especially faith in Jewish perseverance and in the unity of the Jewish people. Given the sense of drift in so much of Jewish life today, we need the memory of the Diaspora’s must successful political struggle to remind us of our ability to overcome seemingly impossible challenges.

One threat continues to hover over the homecoming of Soviet Jewry: the place in Israeli society of hundreds of thousands of immigrants and their children who are not halakhically Jewish. A wise rabbinic leadership, sensitive to the devastating impact of the last century on the Jewish people and seeking to heal its body and soul, would have scoured the tradition for halakhic precedent in embracing the Russians, a lost tribe restored to us at a moment before its disappearance. Instead, the state’s chief rabbinate, official arbiter of Jewishness, has treated immigrants from the former Soviet Union as infiltrators undermining the cohesiveness and spiritual purity of the Jewish people, against whom the guardians of the gates must be constantly vigilant.

Some who have tried to convert to Judaism were stymied by the ultra-Orthodox-controlled rabbinic establishment. While halakhah defines Jewishness through the mother, moderate Orthodox rabbis have offered halakhic solutions that would ease conversion requirements for those with a Jewish father; but those rabbis remain a minority.

Technically, the denial of the Jewishness of immigrants doesn’t affect their Israeliness. According to the Law of Return, anyone with a single Jewish grandparent, or the spouse of a Jew, is entitled to Israeli citizenship. The state determines who is an Israeli; the chief rabbinate determines who is a Jew. The most serious practical consequence of being excluded from Jewishness is the inability to marry in Israel, where there is no civil marriage. (Israeli law adopted the Ottoman “millet” system, granting exclusive jurisdiction over marriage to religious courts of the country’s faiths.) And yet, this being Israel, there is always a loophole, allowing for normal life. Couples who wed abroad in a civil ceremony are duly registered by the state as married; Cyprus is a 20-minute flight away.

But the message of formal exclusion from the Jewish people is the lingering humiliation of otherness. The most unbearable expression of exclusion was the burial outside the confines of our military cemeteries of non-halakhic immigrant soldiers who fell in combat. (That terrible practice has since been quietly suspended.)

No group of immigrants to Israel was as vulnerable to that humiliation as the Russians, precisely because of the thinness of their Jewish lives. (Jewish tradition would call them “babes in captivity,” forcibly removed from Jewish life and raised as gentiles and so bearing no responsibility for their Jewish ignorance.) They came to us in innocence and trust, seeking to join a country they knew nothing about and rejoin a people whose story they had nearly forgotten. And we reassured them that they had come home: Government ministers greeted them as they disembarked at Ben-Gurion Airport; soldiers handed the children little Israeli flags.

In those early years of mass immigration, thousands of young men underwent circumcision. The immigrants learned the Jewish holiday cycle and the intricacies of Jewish observance. In a Youtube clip, the Israeli-Russian comic, Giora Zinger, re-enacts his family’s first seder. Whatever can go wrong does go wrong. Instead of matzah (“Who can each such a disgusting thing,” says his mother) there is bread; instead of wine, vodka. “Don’t forget we’re Ashkenazim,” Giora tells his mother, “we don’t eat ‘kitniyot,’ [legumes and rice] on Passover.” “Is pork kitniyot?” his mother innocently asks. “Oy,” the father says, “we forgot the bunny!” “What bunny?” says an exasperated Giora. “The Pascha bunny,” says the father proudly, confusing Easter for Passover.

            And yet, the real story that clip tells is the reintegration of the Russians back into Jewish identity. A generation ago, most immigrants really didn’t know the difference between Pascha and Pesach, let alone the meaning of kitniyot; today, the Zingers are able to laugh at how ignorant they were precisely because they no longer are.

The narrative of Ingathering, of a people returning home, gave dignity to all previous waves of immigrants – who were not immigrants and certainly not refugees but olim, ascenders to the land of Israel. That status helped them bear the inevitable traumas and insults of immigration. By placing a permanent doubt over the Russians’ right to be considered olim, the rabbinate continues to undermine their most basic sense of home. That message is constantly reinforced in the Haredi media, which mocks Russian practices like the Novi God, the winter celebration which Soviet Jews had embraced precisely because of its neutral secular nature, much as American Jews celebrate Thanksgiving, and which immigrants and their children have continued to observe. “Goyim! Vodka!” Haredi Knesset members have taunted their fellow MKs of Russian descent, as though drunk pogromists had descended on the Jewish state.

The exclusion from membership in the Jewish people of large numbers of Israelis of Russian origin, over a generation after their return home, raises urgent questions. Who should represent Judaism in the state of Israel and oversee admission into the Jewish people? Should the needs of the Ingathering factor in halakhic decision-making? And more profoundly, what is the meaning of a Jewish state: Is it the state of Judaism or of the Jewish people?

In grappling with those questions, my starting point is Zionism and the Third Era it helped create. To grant exclusive jurisdiction to Orthodox Judaism, no matter how venerable, and deny competing liberal denominations a place in official Israel, is an anti-Zionist act. Zionism promised to create a sovereign public space that would reflect the totality of the Jewish people, in which each sector could see a reflection of itself. Addressing the First Zionist Congress in 1897, Theodore Herzl cited the broad diversity of delegates –  “the most modern elements of Judaism with the most conservative” – as proof that the Jews are a nation and Zionism its legitimate representative. Excluding the Reform and Conservative movements, which represent a majority of affiliated Jews in the Diaspora, from official participation in Israel’s religious life negates the spirit of the Third Era –  the era of Jewish peoplehood.

Still, in the early years of the state there seemed to be compelling reason to grant Orthodoxy exclusive control over conversion. The only way to maintain the unity of the Jewish people in the era of Ingathering, went the argument, was to ensure that we could marry each other, which meant some minimal consensus on determining who is a Jew. Given that arguably most Israelis agreed with the traditional definition of Jewishness – the child of a Jewish mother or an Orthodox convert – and that there were few intermarried couples among the immigrants from Eastern Europe and the Middle East, it made sense to cede to Orthodoxy the keys to Israeli Judaism. In any case, the number of prospective converts was small, and their situation hardly impacted on Israeli society.

In those years too, the chief rabbinate was controlled by religious Zionists, for whom strengthening the cohesiveness of Israeli society was a religious responsibility. The Zionist chief rabbis understood that the complicated dynamic of restoring the fragments of a broken people required sensitivity. Halakhah was intended to enhance Jewish unity, not subvert it. And so they searched for legal solutions to problems like conversion in the era of Ingathering, helping to ease entry into the Jewish people. One chief rabbi, Shlomo Goren, went so far as to create a new halakhic category for conversion: Commitment to living in Israel and raising Jewish children there was, for Goren, a determining factor for joining the Jewish people. Another chief rabbi, Ovadiah Yosef determined that Ethiopian Jewry, though severed for centuries from world Jewry and ignorant of rabbinic law, should be regarded as fully Jewish – a ruling that allowed the state to grant citizenship under the Law of Return to Ethiopian immigrants. (Ironically, he later founded the ultra-Orthodox party Shas, undermining the religious Zionist rabbinate.)

But then two factors changed. The chief rabbinate was taken over by the Haredi parties and became religiously extreme; while Israeli society, thanks to the Russian immigration, became more Jewishly diffuse.

Potential converts are now compelled to adopt not only halakhic practice but Haredi standards, such as forbidding women to wear pants, only long dresses and sleeves, or disqualifying women who study in university rather than marry young and have children. Haredim are right to note that their rigid approach to conversion is rooted in precedent: During the exile, would-be converts were routinely discouraged by the rabbis, in part out of fear of hostile reaction from Christian and Muslim authorities. But carrying that norm of the Second Era into the era of Ingathering undermines the meaning of Zionism and threatens Israeli society. The absurdly high bar for admission into the Jewish people demanded by the chief rabbinate has effectively stymied thousands of potential Russian converts, creating a vast category of religious untouchables.

There is a maddening irony here. The one part of the Jewish community that remained indifferent, even hostile, to the Soviet Jewry movement from its inception to its conclusion, were the ultra-Orthodox. And now, outrageously, the ultra-Orthodox are determining who among the Soviet emigres and their children will formally enter the Jewish people, and how that process should be managed.

It could have been different. In the mid-1990s, there was a daring attempt to absorb non-halakhic immigrants into the Jewish people. The government-appointed Ne’eman Commission, headed by then-Finance Minister Yaakov Ne’eman, a leading religious Zionist, created a conversion institute whose goal was to actually convert candidates rather than deter them with impossible religious demands. Even more courageously, the institute provided a place in the conversion process for Reform and Conservative rabbis, the first officially sanctioned model of religious pluralism.  Just as almost all parts of the Jewish people participated in the movement to free Soviet Jewry, argued the Institute’s founders, so should its spiritual absorption be a unifying experience. In seeking Orthodox approval, the institute offered a compromise: The educational program for potential converts would be pluralistic, inviting Reform and Conservative rabbis to teach along with Orthodox rabbis, while granting Orthodoxy continued exclusive jurisdiction over the actual conversion court. In the best Israeli tradition of creatively muddling through our insoluble contradictions, that compromise sought to respect the red line of each side: the need of the liberal denominations for official recognition, the need of the Orthodox to respect the halakhic integrity of the conversion process.

Leading religious Zionist rabbis, along with the Reform and Conservative movements, endorsed the compromise. Government-sponsored conversion classes were created around the country.

            I visited one of those classes, held in the low-ceilinged basement of an immigrant absorption center. Two dozen teenagers, some with piercings on their faces, were studying the Book of Ruth, the seminal biblical text about joining the Jewish people. Sensing their restlessness after two hours of study, the Russian-born teacher, an Orthodox professor of Jewish studies, paused and asked them, “So why do you want to convert? You’ve already got Israeli citizenship.”

            “I want to be fully part of Israeli society,” said a young woman.

            That answer would be dismissed as irrelevant by Orthodox Jews. What does conversion to Judaism have to do with being Israeli? If Druse, say, can be fully part of Israeli society, why not non-halakhic Russians?

            As if intuiting that objection, a young man explained: In the Soviet Union the word ‘Jew’ was written in our identity cards and marked us for antisemitism. “It’s not fair to taunt us here for being Russian when there we were taunted for being Jews,” he said. Now that he was here, he wanted to own the identity of “Jew” with pride.

            And what of the religious nature of conversion? “Faith has to grow inside a person,” another young man said. “I’m now getting philosophical answers from Judaism about the meaning of a human being. But it’s a long process. Give me time.”

            In the end, he and the others were not given time to explore and grow within Judaism. Haredi opposition defeated the program.

Clearly, in retrospect, the Ne’eman Commission tried to achieve too much. Had it focused on easing the Orthodox conversion process rather than seeking to simultaneously address the need for religious pluralism, the chief rabbinate, not yet fully controlled by Haredim, might have resisted the pressure. Given that the Orthodox will likely continue to dominate official religious life, the struggle for completing the absorption of Russian-origin Israelis needs to focus on ensuring a more flexible Orthodox conversion process.

In 2022, Matan Kahane, minister for religious affairs and a religious Zionist, tried to do precisely that. In a seemingly innocuous move, he tabled a law that would allow potential converts to choose their Orthodox rabbinic court, rather than be assigned a panel of judges by the chief rabbinate. The Haredi pushback was ferocious. Kahane, they said, was seeking to destroy Judaism, just like the Hellenist king Antiochus, the villain of the Hanukah story who placed idols in the Temple.

Kahane, who served in the IDF’s most elite commando unit and then re-enlisted to become a combat pilot, was unfazed. “When did you ever pray while lying in an ambush in the pouring rain and bitter cold?” he furiously challenged his Haredi critics. “When did you ever pray to God before going into battle?”

Not surprisingly, the one institution with the power and self-confidence to circumvent the Haredi veto and create a flexible Orthodox path to conversion has been the IDF. The IDF’s conversion program has brought several thousand soldiers of Russian origin into the Jewish people. The program is an example of the uniqueness among armies of the IDF, which sees its role not only in defending the country’s borders but strengthening its society and the Jewish people generally. (For that same reason, in 1991, the Israeli air force dispatched planes to Addis Ababa in the middle of a local civil war to fly thousands of Ethiopian Jews to Israel.) In the struggle between the IDF and the Haredi establishment, the Third Era prevailed over the Second, as it must for the state of Israel to succeed.

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