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Why Aren't I 'Jewish Enough'?


ITIM Helps Meet Jewish Needs in the 21st Century

Rabbi Seth Farber is a very busy person and an unusual orthodox rabbi. He was ordained by the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary of Yeshiva University. He also has an MA in Judaic Studies from Yeshiva University and a Ph.D. from the Hebrew University in Modern Jewish History.

In 2002 he founded ITIM, an Israeli organization that aims to have more people participate in Jewish communal life. What does that mean in Israel where, you might think, everyone is Jewish?

Even though an individual, couple, or family may have come to Israel under the Law of Return, they could find that after a decade or more, when they are ready to make a life change, their husband/wife/child may not be recognized as Jewish. More often than you might imagine, an unsuspecting Jew may want to get married, only to be informed by the Rabbinate that he or she is "not Jewish enough."

"That can't be true," you should be correct in saying. But it is.

This is where ITIM steps in. "Different parts of the Jewish community have different needs today than they did 100 years ago," Farber says. "ITIM has taken upon itself to work on the needs of the Jewish people today. This often means working to change the attitudes of the Rabbinate and religious policy makers." Clearly no easy task.

Between 1988-2004 more than 1.4 million Jews came to Israel from the former Soviet Union. "These Jews had been cut off from Judaism for two or three generations. For them, coming to Israel was the expression of the Zionist dream. Israel should be the home for all Jews. Especially those who had been persecuted for being Jewish."

So you breathe a sigh of relief. You nod your head and think, "That's what I thought." Not so fast.

The early arrivals were greeted enthusiastically. Those of us who witnessed it, remember the pictures of the Russian olim walking off the planes, looking shell shocked but happy. In a short time, volunteers all around the country were helping them adjust.

My family and I "adopted" a nice family from Ukraine when they first arrived. Parents, daughter, and grandmother. We helped them get whatever they needed and invited them for dinner every Friday night. In the middle of winter in Jerusalem, they arrived during a really heavy storm that we hoped would turn into snow. I remember thinking: "They're from the Ukraine. At least we won't have to find winter clothes for them." I was wrong. Sasha, the father, arrived wearing summer shoes. "Where are your boots?" I asked him. "I gave them to my brother at the airport in Russia. Since we were coming to live in the desert, I figured I wouldn't need them."

This initial naivete about life in Israel was nothing compared to the problems Russian olim would eventually face. Rabbis began wanting immigrants, many of whom had been in Israel for more than a decade, to provide documents often going back several generations. "Unfortunately, over the last 15 years the Israeli religious establishment has become more machmir (stringent)," Farber says. "In some cases they were asked to prove they have a Jewish gene. The result is that, instead of feeling they are part of the Israeli dream, former Russians often feel humiliated. They feel they aren't part of the Zionist endeavor."

This is where ITIM gets to work. Each individual case is assisted by one of the organization's four divisions that have become increasingly active during the last 19 years.

ITIM operates The ITIM Assistance Center which does what the title suggests. They help people become recognized as Jews, convert, get married, etc. In all, they have helped more than 50,000 families, of which 4,000 in 2020 alone.

"That's great," you might think, "helping so many people." But then you catch yourself. "50,000 families?"

There's more. The ITIM Public Policy Center helps improve policies that affect Jewish life. Like making mikvehs accessible for the disabled and for local burial societies to make their fee structures transparent.

The ITIM Legal Center handles religion-and-State issues. Recent cases they succeeded with include requiring the State to reinstate citizens' official Jewish status following unwarranted Jewish identity investigations. They also successfully negotiated a case where Ethiopian employees of the Barkan Winery had been demoted because their Jewishness was in question. Another case that got wide publicity was pressuring the Chief Rabbinate to release its criteria for recognizing the authority of non-Israeli rabbis.

The Giyur K'Halacha Conversion Court Network offers Israeli citizens an inclusive, supportive, Orthodox conversion alternative to the State conversion program. Staff assist candidates from their initial inquiries to educational programs, conversion court hearings, and anything else they may require. Sixty modern orthodox rabbis serve as the conversion court judges.

In the summer of 2020 Israeli newspapers reported that the Interior Ministry suspended the Jewish status of 2,200 children. These cases do not just apply to Jews from the former Soviet Union. ITIM's Legal Center filed a freedom of information request in 2018. It turns out there are a variety of other cases such as lone soldiers from Western countries who have completed their army service, stay in Israel and want to get married. Because they may come from non-Orthodox (Conservative or Reform) families, they are told they aren't Jewish enough.

Most of these investigations begin when a citizen from the former Soviet Union has a child who is registered with the Interior Ministry, or when a member of the family wants to get married. This requires approval of the Rabbinate. In some cases, the Interior Ministry has refused to register as Jewish a significant number of citizens who married through the Chief Rabbinate.

"This is a policy of harassment of families and the Interior Ministry is trying to strip them of the religious and national identity that brought them on aliyah in the first place," says Farber.

It's hard to hear the word "harassment", especially when both sides are Jews in Israel.

Elad Caplan, an attorney who is also ITIM managing director, says there is a trend of increasing suspicion toward immigrants from the former Soviet Union. "Individuals are being summoned to rabbinical courts to discredit their Jewish identities. These courts are also using DNA testing to check if people have Jewish genes. The Jewish identity of thousands of children is being revoked. These are children who were born in Israel to Jewish parents. Clerks are telling them their Jewishness is in question because of their ethnicity. These are the very Jews we fought to save just a generation ago. Now we're telling them they're not welcome here."

Does this mean that coming to Israel under the Law of Return isn't sufficient?

"More and more frequently, the Population Registry (under the Interior Ministry), is taking its cues from the rabbinical courts and influencing other institutions," Farber says. "To cast a shadow over an entire population is undemocratic and un-Jewish."

In recent years the Registry has re-opened Jewish identity cases against thousands of Israeli families. Almost all of them are families from the former Soviet Union.

In one case reported in the Israeli press in 2020, the Interior Ministry refused to register as Jewish the child of a woman whose mother was a Soviet refusenik and whose grandmother was a Holocaust survivor. The former refusenik eventually was able to leave the Soviet Union, come to Israel, and her daughter was married through the Rabbinate.

Michaela Levin-Shamir is the daughter of the refusenik. When her daughter was born, she went to the Interior Ministry to get her daughter's birth certificate.

"The clerk issued me a birth certificate and in the section on nationality and religion it said, 'under inquiry.' My mind went blank. I didn't understand what was happening. Are you depriving my daughter of her Jewish identity?"

ITIM went to court and the child's birth certificate now lists her religion and nationality as Jewish and Israeli.

ITIM is working in other areas as well. In Farber's view, part of the Zionist dream is to encourage women Torah scholars. The Chief Rabbinate bars women from taking State exams that certify proficiency in Jewish law. In June 2020, ITIM went to the High Court along with a number of other organizations. They argued that women who study both Halacha (Jewish law) and Talmud at a high level are being discriminated against because they are not allowed to take the same exams as men. The case is still before the High Court.

"One would have expected the Rabbinate to magnify and glorify Torah study by opening its gates to female Torah scholars," Elad Caplan says. "Their inability to accept women's expanding role in religious society is liable to erode its foundations."

The reality speaks for itself. "More and more learned women are taking on halachic leadership roles," Farber says. "This is a great blessing for the Torah world which has become richer for it. The state's response provides an opening for changing the absurd situation in which the Chief Rabbinate of Israel is actually blocking the growth of the Torah world."

As Farber says, "Different parts of the Jewish community have different needs today than they did 100 years ago." It seems that Israel's religious establishment wants to maintain a particular type of status quo, while ITIM is looking to improve the Jewish future. The 50,000 families ITIM has assisted might have remained humiliated and not really part of Israel's vibrant Jewish community. All they want is an even chance.

No Jew should be told by the establishment that they aren't Jewish enough. Nor should they be required to find Jewish genes. ITIM meets these and other "requirements" that are difficult to understand by working to change the attitudes of the Rabbinate and religious policy makers. While some forces in the Rabbinate are trying to block women from taking on halachic leadership roles, ITIM is working to "magnify and glorify Torah study" and bring "a great blessing for the Torah world."

It is this dichotomy that ITIM is challenging.

To find out more about ITIM's other activities, visit their website



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Friday, 21 June 2024

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