Feature: Russian Runaround
Valentina tslipov, 55, knows why her husband was refused a visa by Israel’s Moscow embassy, even though no formal reason was ever given.
“The official’s face said it all,” she states. “As soon as she saw he came from Vysoki, she got ready to stamp his application ‘Nyet!’”
Luba Goncharov, 31, her husband, children and parents are also from Vysoki, a village in Russia’s Voronezh region 400 miles south of Moscow. They all applied for Israeli visas, but only Goncharov and her parents received them. “My parents are old,” she says. “My father was ill, and he wanted to die in Israel if he couldn’t live there, so I went ahead with them. I thought my family would soon follow.”
Goncharov and Tslipov are among some 800 Subbotniks from Vysoki and an estimated 15,000 throughout Russia who consider themselves Jewish and want to live in Israel. These Jewish Subbotniks (Sabbath observers) are descended from Russian peasants who adopted Judaism around the 18th century and refused to work on Saturday. While there has been a steady aliya from the community for over a century (Joseph Trumpeldor, the hero of Tel Hai, was almost certainly a Subbotnik, as was Major-General Rafael Eitan, a former Israel Defense Forces chief of staff), Israel’s gates have swung closed to most of the community in the past few years. While the distinction between Subbotniks and Ashkenazi Jews had faded within the two communities, it remains distinct for Russian and, now, Israeli authorities. Today, Israel’s Moscow embassy grants immigration visas only to Subbotniks who have documents to prove their Jewishness and refuses them to spouses of intermarried Subbotniks and their children, despite Israel’s Law of Return.
It has been over a year now since Goncharov left her husband and three young children in Vysoki. “I’m torn in two,” she says. “My father died four months ago, my mother won’t leave Israel because his grave is here, and I can’t leave her alone. Meanwhile, my husband and children can’t even get tourist visas.”
Goncharov’s husband is Russian Orthodox. “That’s why they refuse his visa,” she says, “though I don’t know why they turn down my kids, who are as Jewish as I am. It’s not fair. I was born a Jew, live as a Jew and want to raise my children as Jews in Israel. Why won’t the government let them in?”
Tslipov’s situation is different. Her husband, she asserts, is a Subbotnik, but his nationality was registered by the Soviets as Russian rather than Jewish, and he has no documents that prove otherwise.
Until recently, Israel made no distinction between Russian Jews and Subbotniks, and thousands of Subbotniks were among the million-plus Russians who immigrated to Israel from the former Soviet Union.
“Entire Subbotnik villages in Russia emptied,” says Michael Freund, head of Shavei Israel, the Jerusalem-based organization that reaches out to descendants of Jews trying to reclaim their Jewish heritage (www.shavei.org).
In 1997, however, an Israeli woman, midway through a bitter divorce from a Subbotnik, charged that the community was a “Christian sect” whose members lied about their Jewish origins to win Israeli citizenship.
Six years later, Israel’s then-Interior Minister Avraham Poraz imposed restrictions on Subbotnik immigration, citing “questionable origins.” Despite the readiness of many Subbotniks to remove any doubt about their Jewish status by formal conversion, the restrictions remain in place. Israeli authorities are tightlipped about the Subbotniks; when asked, officials at Israel’s Interior Ministry and Conversion Authority say the situation is “being evaluated.”
As eager as Vysoki residents are to live in Israel, the town is equally impatient to see them go. “I have two sisters, two brothers-in-law and a tribe of nieces and nephews there,” says Michael Buchesikow, 49, one of 500 Vysoki Subbotniks who has moved to Israel in recent years. “My brothers-in-law are Russian Orthodox, and my sisters have chosen to stay with them in Vysoki rather than split their families. But they are verbally abused, spat on, cannot find work and [are] called ‘dirty Jews.’”
All of which makes it a tragic irony when Subbotniks are denied entry to Israel because of the ambiguity of their origins. “It is unclear why they became Jews, but it’s beyond dispute that it took guts to defy anti-Semitism in czarist Russia and choose Judaism,” says Freund.
In March, he and Shavei Israel were awarded the prestigious Jerusalem Prize for “an overarching sense of humanity [in helping] Jews and their descendants all over the world, educating them and assisting them to return to Judaism.” Grandson of the late Miriam Freund-Rosenthal, who was a Hadassah national president, Freund credits her efforts for Soviet Jewry as his inspiration.
“We do know [Subbotniks] were accepted by contemporary Ashkenazi Jews,” explains Freund. “They were welcomed into their synagogues. Some studied in their yeshivas and married into Russia’s Ashkenazi community.”
From the start, however, Subbotniks suffered for defying Russian cultural norms and embracing a hated faith and people. In an 1817 petition, the 20,000 Subbotniks of Voronezh protested to Czar Alexander I about “the oppressions [we suffer] at the hands of the local authorities, both ecclesiastic and civil, on account of our confessing the Law of Moses.”
The petition was a grave error. The response of the rabidly anti-Semitic czar was that “the chiefs and teachers of the Judaizing sects are to be impressed into military service, and those unfit to serve deported to Siberia.… [And] every outward display of the sect, such as the holding of prayer-meetings and observance of ceremonies which bear no resemblance to those of Christians” was prohibited and the community was dispersed throughout the czarist empire, from the Caucasus to the Ukraine.
Despite dispersal and persecution, the Subbotniks persisted as Jews. They kept Shabbat and kashrut. They practiced brit mila, wore talit and tefilin and prayed three times a day. They baked matzot for Pesah and celebrated the festivals from Yom Kippur to Lag B’omer.
The Subbotniks fared little better under the Soviet government. Ukrainian Subbotnik communities that fell into Nazi hands in the early 1940’s were murdered alongside Ashkenazi Jews. When Russia’s gates opened in the 1990’s, the Subbotniks began streaming out of the country.
“They came into Israel under the Law of Return, receiving the help to which all immigrants are entitled,” says Freund. “Most settled in Beit Shemesh near Jerusalem and in the Jordan Valley. Their lifestyle is traditional or Orthodox and their children attend religious schools.”
While Subbotnik communities throughout the former Soviet Union tend to be more Jewishly observant than many Ashkenazi Russians, seven decades of harsh Communist rule have taken their toll.
The Soviets leaned particularly heavily on the Subbotniks of Voronezh. In the 1960’s, they began registering Vysoki Subbotniks, such as Tslipov’s husband, as Russian, not Jewish, and brought non-Jewish Russians to live amid the traditional, close-knit Subbotniks.
By the late 1960’s, religious observance and Jewish knowledge were nose-diving among the younger generation and intermarriage was rising. It is the non-Jewish spouses of Subbotniks, Buchesikow’s brothers-in-law and Goncharov’s husband, for example, who are refused visas to Israel.
“It’s a capricious and unfair policy,” charges Freund, citing the 1970 amendment to Israel’s Law of Return, specifically drafted to accommodate mixed marriages. The amendment extends the right to settle as full citizens in the Jewish state to the spouses, children and grandchildren of Jews, even if they are not halakhically Jewish.
“It’s inconsistent and un-Jewish,” says Buchesikow, who works in high technology in Beit Shemesh. “On one hand, Israel doubts our Jewishness. On the other, it admits us under the Law of Return, but then refuses to apply it to our families.
“This means,” he adds, “that almost all of us in Israel are separated from relatives who want to live here, too. We were persecuted as Jews in Russia, but we are not accepted as Jews in Israel.”
The community’s distress is beginning to be voiced in the Jewish state. In spring 2005, Shavei Israel delivered to then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon a petition signed by 100 Vysoki families whose visa requests had been refused or ignored.
The story was picked up by the media and, two weeks later, 20 of the 100 families were granted visas. By summer of that year, the Knesset’s aliya committee had met at Shavei Israel’s initiative. The committee called on the government to justify its policy on legal, Zionist and moral grounds and asked the government to formulate a clear policy toward Subbotniks that will enable them to come to Israel.
Last November, Freund visited the Vysoki Subbotniks with the Israel Conversion Authority’s deputy head Rabbi Moshe Klein and Conversion Court rabbinical judge Rabbi Eliahu Birnbaum.
“We joined the[m] for shaharit,” Freund recalls. “They followed the Ashkenazi rite, but prayed entirely in Russian. The last member of the community who could read Hebrew, 93-year-old ‘Reb Pinchas,’ had made aliya two months earlier. He now lives in a largely Subbotnik community in Beit Shemesh with his granddaughter and great-grandson, Maxim.”
Time is running out for the Subbotniks. “The last shohet died about a decade ago and they perform ritual slaughter [of animals] themselves,” Pinchas Goldschmidt, chief rabbi of Moscow, told 50 fellow rabbis at the Caucasus Kiruv Organization conference, held in Jerusalem in 2003. “There is a Jewish cemetery and a sort of burial society, [but] there is no synagogue and never has been one. Prayers are held in the homes of mourners. There is one kosher Sefer Torah….
“About a third of the young people of the town are married to Russians, but they want to move to Israel and convert as well.”
Shavei Israel is trying to get things moving, says Freund. “While these people wait for visas, we want to prepare them for life in Israel,” he explains. “If the rabbis decide they must convert, we will set up a conversion school, in Vysoki or in Israel. We have already sent a rabbi, David Vinitz, to teach Hebrew and Judaism to the several thousand Subbotniks who live in Staraya Zima in eastern Siberia. He’s the first rabbi the community has ever had.”
Once money is raised, Shavei Israel plans to send rabbis and Jewish educators to the other large Subbotnik communities in Bondarevo in south central Siberia, Volgograd and Astrakhan in southern Russia and, of course, Vysoki and its surrounding villages of Nikolskoye, Kliopovka and Gvazdovka.
“Eventually, the Subbotniks will find a way to live in Israel,” says Freund. “Until then, we can teach them about Israel and Judaism.”