Recently, I participated in a Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) Rabbinic Cabinet mission to Kiev and Israel. Its purpose was to better our understanding of the work of the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the Jewish Agency with the Jews of the former Soviet Union during the last quarter century.
Currently, 80,000 Jews remain in Ukraine while many more have migrated to Israel and North America. The work of both agencies has been remarkable. They have helped Jews explore their Jewish identity, (which was often unknown until their teen years), and offer real life sustaining aid to thousands.
In this column, I want to focus on a different aspect of our trip. I was actually successful in discovering a third cousin living in Kiev. Had my parents not left in the early 1920s, I might have been a client of the extraordinary Chesed program of the Joint. Chesed maintains the well-being of thousands of our people still remaining there. My 36-year-old cousin made aliya with her parents and grandparents. In her 30s, she met another Kiev native in Israel who had been studying in the yeshiva world in Israel. Yet when they dealt with the Rabbanut to get married religiously, he could not present proof of his Jewish identity that would be satisfactory to the ultra-Orthodox establishment. They were married civilly in Kiev, which is where they now live Jewish lives, because this was denied to them in Israel.
Another case: we also visited an Absorption Center in Ashdod that was created to address the physician shortage currently occurring in Israel. It is hard to believe. We met with some 30 young FSU (former Soviet Union) physicians who were being taught medical terms in Hebrew and were being helped to become acclimated to life in Israel, in order to function as Israeli physicians. That’s impressive and amazing.
Suddenly, in tears, one of the young women spoke. “I have never before been able to address 32 rabbis before,” she said. “I need to tell you that the demeaning process I was made to endure these last several years was awful! I was failed by the rabbinate three times over three years before the rabbis finally passed me. I am now officially Jewish, but my classmates are still suffering from their own horrible experiences.”
This was severely troubling and painful to hear.
Lastly, I was given the honor of introducing Natan Sharansky, chair of the Jewish Agency, recently charged by the prime minister to resolve the plight of the Women of the Wall. These women have been trying to pray at the Wall wearing tallitot and some with tefillin, every Rosh Hodesh for the last 24 years. When I presented our group to Sharansky, I indicated that seated before him were rabbis of every movement, but regrettably two rabbis were not with us. They had just been detained at the Wall by the police as they were leaving the Wall. Sharansky was very surprised. He told us that the day before he had met with the police captain and requested that only women police deal with the Women of the Wall. He had understood that there would be no arrests while he is reviewing the situation.
There are currently 300,000 emigrants from the FSU living in Israel, speaking Hebrew, living according to the Jewish calendar, and risking their lives by serving in the IDF. They cannot be married or buried in the Jewish state. They would like to be converted, but last year the Chief Rabbinate converted only 2,000.
Over 50 years ago, I spent a remarkable year in Israel studying at the Hebrew University. I recall thinking that, God willing, one day there will be peace on the borders. At the same time, I was frightened to think of the dissension that would erupt between the religious and nonreligious within those borders.
While a new Israeli government is being put together, I would urge those who see the current power in the hands of the ultra-Orthodox as untenable to make their voices heard, and to make their position known.
If not now, when?
(Rabbi Alvin Berkun is rabbi emeritus of Tree of Life-Or L’Simcha Congregation in Squirrel Hill and past president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the umbrella group of the Conservative rabbinate.)