‘Non-Jewish’ Jews endure challenges living in Israel

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,” he said. “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. 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 halacha, 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 descendants 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 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 observed Jewish holidays even back in Siberia, and she said 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 (non-Jew).”

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. Gorman 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. They were angry and bewildered by the rules.

Maxim Gorman, 25, who served in an Israel Defense Forces 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 abroad on the most important day of his life.

“It was especially hard, because although I am not Jewish according to halacha, 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.

Russia Returns 16 Long-Sought Books

The Lubavitch movement is celebrating the transfer of 16 more religious books to a Lubavitch-run synagogue in Moscow. But it is unclear when — and indeed, if — the balance of the thousands of books that make up the “Schneerson Library” will come into the ultra-Orthodox group’s hands.

Earlier this month, a group of Lubavitch Jews gathered in a downtown Moscow synagogue to welcome the 16 books that were returned to the movement from the Russian State Library, formerly known as the Lenin Library, where the collection has been held for the last 80 years.

With the 16 volumes returned this month, the count of books from the collection released by Russia this year increased to 30. Fourteen books were returned earlier this year in two batches.

A few years after the Russian Revolution, the books — estimates range from 4,000 to 12,000 volumes — were seized from the fifth Lubavitcher rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson, as part of a crackdown on religion.

Excitement, singing and clapping filled the room as West Coast Chabad director Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin, who described the transfer as “the fulfillment of 80 years of imprisonment,” carried the pile of antique books into the Bronnaya Synagogue’s main hall. Long tables were put together and covered with tallitot (prayer shawls), before the books were laid out.

Cunin opened the front page of the thickest volume in the pile. “It’s Gemarrah,” he announced, referring to a volume of Talmudic texts. Another book turned out to be a 200-year-old prayer book of the first Lubavitcher rebbe, and Cunin recited his evening prayer over the newly found treasure.

The return of the books came after more than a decade of efforts. Agudas Chasidei Chabad-Lubavitch, a group affiliated with the Lubavitch movement, was established in 1990 with the goal of achieving the release of the Schneerson collection.

It took appeals by three U.S. administrations, all 100 U.S. senators, heads of state from various nations and Jewish leaders from around the world “to get these 16 volumes,” said the Los Angeles-based Cunin, who has been spearheading the Lubavitch effort to get the books returned. More directly, a gesture from the Bush administration apparently made the return possible.

At a ceremony in Moscow earlier this month, the United States returned to Russia an archive of the Smolensk Regional Committee of the Communist Party. At the end of World War II, the U.S. armed forces came into possession of the archive, looted by the Nazis when they occupied Russia during World War II. To show its appreciation for the archive, Russia agreed to return part of the Schneerson library. A senior Russian State Library official in charge of the Schneerson collection said the library was asked “to expedite the return” of some books to Lubavitch when the United States indicated it was ready to give back the Smolensk archive.

“These books are now the property of Chabad,” said Meri Trifonenko, head of the Russian State Library’s Oriental Center, where the collection is stored.

Rabbi Berel Lazar, leader of the Lubavitch movement in the former Soviet Union and one of Russia’s two chief rabbis, confirmed that the books will be transferred to the library at Moscow’s Marina Roscha Synagogue and Community Center, the movement’s main facility in Russia.

As part of the arrangement, the books must stay in Russia for now. A decision on the matter by the Russian Ministry of Culture could allow the Lubavitch movement to transfer the books to Brooklyn, location of the group’s international headquarters. However, it is unclear whether all parts of the Lubavitch movement want the books taken out of Russia.

The State Library’s Trifonenko said no more books have been marked for transfer to Chabad in the near future. She said that only those books from the Schneerson collection that have duplicates in the State Library’s main collection were transferred to Chabad.

Lubavitch officials said they hope the Russians will follow up on the return of the books. Cunin indicated that Chabad will continue its practice of appealing to the U.S. leadership to press Russia on the matter.

The New Melones Murders

The New Melones Lake, a reservoir near the city of Modesto, is in a quiet, rural area in central California. The reservoir resembles a river more than a lake as it winds its way among the hills of Calaveras and Tuolumne counties.

The reservoir is a popular fishing area, but in the middle of March its catch of the day wasn’t fish: It was four decomposed bodies of immigrants from the former Soviet Union who were kidnapped from the Los Angeles area.

The grim discovery sent waves of shock and disbelief through the Los Angeles Russian-speaking community. It was as if a violent script of a Hollywood movie was suddenly real. A kidnapping plot involving millions of dollars, exotic countries sheltering criminals and serving as transfer points for the ransoms, players within the movie industry, and, finally, four — maybe five — brutal murders that made no sense. As more information becomes available and wild rumors embellish what is known, the immigrants are concerned with yet another issue: labels.

"The media will start talking about the Russian Mafia again," said a prominent physician. "In Russia we were not Russians, we were Jews. Here, to the media, to the Americans, we are all the same, we are all ‘Russians.’ People don’t realize that so many of the Russian-speaking immigrants are not Jewish, that there are so many non-Jews — Christians, Muslims, whatever — who have come here. And now we will all be tarred with the same brush — we will all be Russian mafia."

Helen Levin, the director of the West Hollywood Russian Community Center agreed. "Of the four victims that were found last week, two were Jewish, two were not. Of those arrested, just one appears to be Jewish — the others are Lithuanian, Ukrainian and non-Jewish Russian. But it doesn’t matter — they will say that it was the ‘Russians’ and we will all be suspect."

The story began over a year ago when two individuals came to Los Angeles from Moscow. They wanted to produce a motion picture about Murat, a legendary rebel who fought the Russians when the czar conquered the Caucasus Mountains region. The visitors claimed to have $50 million for the budget.

They met with several of the better-known Hollywood producers, directors and actors, but when it became obvious that the pair had a lot less than $50 million — just $15 million is the figure spoken of now — the project was abandoned. One of the Russians returned home, the other decided that he liked California and wanted to stay here. His name was Georgy Safiev.

One of the people Safiev approached for help was Rita Pekler, an accountant who helped Safiev get a permanent residence permit, establish a business and buy an expensive home in Beverly Hills.

Meanwhile, Safiev kept trying to penetrate the movie industry. He too was seen as a Russian by the Americans he met, but he was neither Russian nor Jewish. His background was Lesghin — one of the many ethnicities in the Caucasus Mountains — and he became friendly with another family whose roots were in the Caucasus — the famous Georgian movie star, the beautiful Rusiko Kiknadze (a relative of Georgia’s President Eduard Shevarnadze) and her 29-year-old son, Nick Kharabadze. Kiknadze’s husband, a specialist in motion picture technology both in Russia and in the United States, Matvey (Mat) Shatz was the only Jew in this group.

Nick was a very talented, charismatic USC graduate and an aspiring movie producer. He apparently persuaded Safiev to bankroll a movie he wanted to produce. He shared the news with his good friend Alex Umansky, another young man with hopes of a career in the film industry, and the two of them told anyone who would listen about Nick’s windfall. The story of Safiev’s wealth — money he had brought with him from Russia — and Nick’s fortune, apparently excited the four men who are currently being charged in the New Melones murders. Ainar Altmanas (the only one with a Jewish surname), Jurijus Kadamovas (a Lithuanian), Petro Krylov (a Ukrainian) and Yuri Mikhel (unknown background) are charged with kidnapping Georgy Safiev on Jan. 20, Umansky on Dec. 13, and Pekler and Kharabadze in early December.

Pekler was still alive after Dec. 5 when she called Safiev and asked to see him right away — Safiev was about to get on a plane and couldn’t see her. Kharabadze also made a phone call after disappearing. He called his home to say that he was OK, in Las Vegas and not to worry. A little later he apparently withdrew a large sum of money from his bank account. A surveillance tape shows him being accompanied by a man who was watching him very closely.

The kidnappers allegedly demanded a $5 million ransom for Safiev and $250,000 for Umansky. At least $1 million of the ransom was allegedly transferred from Moscow to the United Arab Emirates and Dubai, the location of two other suspects, Andrei Augeev and Andrei Liapine, who were allegedly supposed to remit that money to the kidnappers.

One of the mysteries in the case is the death of a nonimmigrant, Meyer Muscatel of Sherman Oaks, a religious Jew, a real estate developer and a man who dreamed of setting up learning centers for disabled children. The fact that his body was found floating in New Melones Lake and that Pekler was the accountant for both Muscatel and Safiev are the only connections between his death on Oct. 13 and the disappearances of the four immigrants two to three months later.

The trial of the four kidnapping suspects and their alleged accomplices is sure to be a media circus. We can only hope that it will not serve to generate anti-immigrant feelings against the law-abiding Russian-speaking community.