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The Jews left behind in Russia
Thousands of Subbotnik Jews being refused permission to move to Israel

Nearly 20 years may have passed since the fall of the Iron Curtain, but it appears that there are still plenty of people who would like to continue to apply some of the more dubious policies employed by the Soviets.

 

Throughout Russia, there are thousands of Subbotnik Jews being refused permission to make Aliyah. Only this time, it is none other than the government of Israel that is refusing to permit them to immigrate.

 

The saga of the Subbotnik Jews began more than two centuries ago, when a group of Russian peasants decided to convert to Judaism. While the historical circumstances behind their decision remain unclear, one thing is beyond doubt: it required a great deal of courage to adopt Judaism under the Czar.

 

Not surprisingly, the Subbotnik Jews were made to pay an extremely heavy price, which climaxed with their forced expulsion to the far reaches of the empire by order of the cruel Czar Alexander I.

Nonetheless, despite the persecution to which they were subjected, they somehow managed to survive, even as they continued to cling tenaciously to the Jewish faith they had so bravely embraced.

 

During the period of the First Aliyah some 120 years ago, large numbers of Subbotnik Jews moved to Israel and quickly came to play a central
role in the pioneering efforts to settle the land. Among their descendants can be found a variety of prominent figures, including former IDF Chief of Staff Rafael (Raful) Eitan; former Israel Police District Commander Alec Ron; and of course the legendary Alexander Zaid, who established the "Hashomer" Jewish self-defense organization a century ago. Thousands of other Subbotnik Jews moved to Israel over the ensuing decades, including in the great wave of Aliyah from Russia which took place during the 1990s.

 

Among those who stayed behind, life under Communism took its toll, and in recent years there has been a noticeable and worrisome wave of growing assimilation and intermarriage. And that is precisely why the State of Israel needs to move expeditiously to allow the remaining Subbotnik Jews to make Aliyah – before they assimilate completely and disappear as Jews.

 

The Subbotnik Jews valiantly stood up to Czarist persecution and Soviet oppression just to remain Jews. Others were murdered by the Nazis because of their allegiance to the Law of Moses. And despite this, the government of Israel continues to display a shocking level of apathy regarding their fate, as it cruelly slams the door in their faces and now prevents them from making Aliyah.

 

The remaining members of the Subbotnik Jewish community, who are concentrated primarily in southern Russian and in eastern Siberia, are struggling valiantly to preserve their Jewish identity and to come home to Israel.

 

But despite the fact that hundreds of Subbotnik Jews from the Russian village of Vysoky have made Aliyah over the past decade, the Interior Ministry and Nativ, an arm of the Prime Minister's Office, have in recent years inexplicably begun placing obstacles in the path of those left behind.

A particularly painful example of the bureaucracy's callousness is the case of Lubov Gonchareva, a 48-year old resident of Vysoky and the mother of three children. Lubov's parents made Aliyah several years ago, were recognized as Jews by the Interior Ministry, and her mother even obtained a ruling from the Jerusalem Rabbinical Court recognizing her as Jewish.

 

Nevertheless, when Lubov herself submitted an application to make Aliyah four years ago, her request was denied on the grounds that her husband was not Jewish. Hence, she was told, she had "lost" the right to move to Israel, even though her parents were living as Jews and Israelis in Beit Shemesh, outside Jerusalem.

 

"I was born a Jew and I live as a Jew, as do my children,” Lubov said recently as tears welled up in her eyes. "The State recognized my parents as Jews, so how can it now do this to me and to my children?”

 

On Thursday, the justices of Israel's Supreme Court will have to decide Lubov's fate, as well as the fate of others like her, when they hear a petition filed on behalf of the Subbotnik Jews by Shavei Israel, the organization that I chair. Hopefully, the judges will recognize that we cannot turn our backs on the remnants of this very special community, particularly after all that it has endured.

 

For if we do so, the remnants of the Subbotnik Jews might be lost to the Jewish people forever – and for that history would surely never forgive us.

 

The writer is the Founder and Chairman of Shavei Israel (www.shaveo.org) - a Jerusalem-based organization that assists "lost Jews" seeking to return to the Jewish people.

 

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