JERUSALEM, October 31, 2002 (JP) — Thousands of former Soviet citizens struggle to balance their identity as Orthodox Christians with their blood ties to the Jewish people.
JERUSALEM, October 31, 2002 (JP) — Thousands of former Soviet citizens struggle to balance their identity as Orthodox Christians with their blood ties to the Jewish people.
Ya’acov leans back against the wall next to his bed in Kfar Saba, with a red throw-blanket covering his long legs. He flips quickly through the Hebrew-language newspaper Sha’ar Lamat’hil, skimming the news while chatting, until something catches his eye.
Though it’s been nine years since he made aliya from Kazakhstan at the age of 18, he is still fascinated by other new-immigrant communities in Israel, and how different they are from what he calls his Russian friends, those from the former Soviet Union.
“Look at the Ethiopians,” he says waving the magazine, open to a photo spread. “They dreamed of coming to Israel.”
Though Ya’acov’s mother is Jewish, he never thought of himself as Jewish back home and certainly never dreamed about Israel.
“In Kazakhstan, my friends were Christian and Muslim, my father was an atheist,” he says. “Being Jewish was something bad that no one ever spoke about. I came to Israel simply because my mother told me it would be my chance to make a good life for myself.”
When he arrived in Israel in 1993, he felt no connection to Israel or the Jewish People. Feeling lost and like an outsider, Ya’acov started searching for Russian-speaking churches to advise him and provide companionship of others like him. Today, a weekly Orthodox-church goer, Ya’acov describes himself as a Christian who has developed a strong and emotional bond with Judaism, Israel and the Jewish People.
“I understand Christianity and I am Christian – and I am Jewish,” he says.
Ya’acov now fasts and goes to synagogue on Yom Kippur, and says when the time comes he wants to be buried in a Jewish cemetery according to Halacha. He will continue to practice Christianity but his future children will be “one hundred percent Jewish and raised in synagogue,” he says. “But they will study and understand Christianity without prejudice.”
His girlfriend, like him, is Jewish according to Halacha.
Identity confusion, as he himself describes it, plagues thousands – and possibly hundreds of thousands – of Israelis of Soviet background. Together with a lingering resistance to Judaism that they bring with them from the FSU, prejudice they feel in Israeli society against minorities, and the cold relations between some of the Orthodox churches (see box), their role in Israeli society, they say, is murky.
“So many Russians suffer because they don’t know where they fit in and they don’t feel accepted,” Ya’acov says. Like many others, Ya’acov did not want his last name published, not knowing how his peers would react to the knowledge that he observes Christianity.
“I only share my real identity with my closest friends.”
The smell of incense pervades a small room in the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem in the capital’s Old City.
Archpriest Father Aleksandr Winogradsky sits surrounded by his icons, candles, vestments and books, and rubs his black beard.
In the five years since he’s been appointed head of all Slavic-speaking Orthodox Christian communities in Israel, he has been trying to figure out how to bridge the gaps between Christians and Jews in Israel, and between the diverse groups of Orthodox Christians he works with.
Before the flood of FSU immigrants, most of those affiliated with Orthodox churches in Israel were Christian Arabs, tourists and pilgrims.
Of the 890,000 immigrants who poured into Israel from the former Soviet Union between 1990 and 1999 under the Law of Return and its amendments, 240,000 did not identify themselves as Jewish, according to the Interior Ministry. Church leaders believe there may be as many as 400,000 non-Jews from the FSU here today.
The Orthodox Christians among them – estimated at 1 percent by Israeli officials and higher by church officials – are an eclectic mix of people of many languages and regions, connected by the shared situation of having some Jewish relationship, a Jewish grandparent, parent or spouse. Some who identify as Orthodox Christians have a Jewish mother or even have two Jewish parents.
For the first time, the State of Israel and the Orthodox Christian Church are being overwhelmed with practicing Christians who have Jewish ancestry.
These citizens start their lives over here, often daunted by the task of developing an Israeli identity while dealing with religious confusion and alienation, says Winogradsky. Amongst themselves as well, he says, the Christian-observant members do not have a coherent identity, seeing themselves as ethnic minorities within the Orthodox Church, instead of seeing themselves simply as Orthodox.
“People come from so many former Russian countries. This is the first time in the history of the Jewish state that so many Christians with Jewish backgrounds have come here,” he says. “Yet they have a big problem with assimilation. They think they are Russian Orthodox, but Orthodox is one faith. The differences between the Orthodox churches [Russian, Greek, Arab, Georgian, Romanian] are minimal, based on the traditions and languages people bring with them from their places of birth.”
The Armenian Patriarchate, however, is considered an Ancient Orthodox or pre-Chalcedonian Church.)
Beyond splinter Orthodox groups, there is a lingering but often-unacknowledged connection to Judaism, he says.
“Coming to Israel can be an opportunity for people to discover who they are and what they really believe. You can’t believe how many think they are pure Russian but show up with the Kaddish prayer in their suitcase, written in Slavic letters.”
Alik, a 26-year-old electrical engineer from Ukraine, doesn’t usually tell people that he’s Christian.
“Sometimes they call me a goy,” he says. “I’m uncomfortable telling people what I believe because it’s a risk. You feel like a foreigner, you don’t fit in. Maybe they won’t talk to you anymore.”
At work, Alik says he is even afraid of getting fired.
Even so, he says that after going to college and serving in the IDF, he has come to feel a part of the Israeli people.
“It’s my identity now, too.”
Like some of his Russian friends, Alik has Jewish parents and never thought about religion before coming to Israel. It was through reading and church support that he started to feel a connection to Christianity.
When asked if the dual identity of being Jewish and practicing Christianity is confusing, he sighs and pauses for a long time.
“Well… um… all the Christians were Jewish once… I guess it’s a little strange sometimes.”
Victoria Vakhnisky, 34, of Arad, immigrated with her Jewish husband in 1994 and separated from him three years later.
In Arad, where she doesn’t go anywhere without her gold cross around her neck, there is a large Orthodox Christian community of Soviet immigrants.
“More than 50 percent of people who live in Arad are Russians,” she says. “Many of them are Christian.”
While many of her Jewish neighbors do ask her why she wears a cross, she says most are accepting.
“Especially the religious Jews. For the secular, for some reason, even though they themselves don’t observe Judaism, they sometimes have a problem with it.”
The biggest problem for Christians in Arad, she says, is that there is no Orthodox church in the city or in any neighboring towns.
“Life is difficult and people need to go to a place of God where they can find hope. If I am in spiritual pain a social worker can’t help me. I’m a good, clean-living person and I work on Sundays because that is what Israel decides, even though it should be a day of prayer. But there is no church to go to. I would even travel to Jerusalem just to go to church but I don’t have a car and I have to go to work.”
Absorption Ministry officials report that Soviet immigrants complain of the lack of churches in several cities nationwide.
But the community’s most acrimonious grievances concern registration and ceremonies relating to birth, marriage, divorce and death.
The Russians, who tend to live in separate neighborhoods and preserve their language and customs, were thrown into the spotlight after the bombing of the Dolphinarium disco in June 2001 when 20 Israelis from the FSU were killed.
On one hand, they received an outpouring of sympathy and support from their Israeli peers who recognized their fate as coupled with their own.
On the other hand, they were aggrieved by disputes with state-backed religious authorities as to where, according to Jewish law, some of the dead had to be buried. Three of the disco victims, whose families requested a Jewish burial, were determined to have “doubtful” Jewish origin and were buried separately.
“Oh, my daughter is alone,” cried the Christian mother of Irena Nepomneschi, 16, after her funeral. The Jewish father had pleaded to no avail with the authorities for an Orthodox Jewish burial beside her friends.
Jewish law requires that Jews are buried separately from others, an observance enforced by state religious authorities.
In some cases, the situation has been reversed, where those who observe Christianity are forced to bury a loved one according to Jewish law.
“I was at a funeral when an Orthodox rabbi asked me to please join him to say a prayer,” says Father Aleksandr. “The person being buried had a Jewish mother but was Christian. The family was very upset about the burial and the rabbi understood this.
“There is also a dilemma when these people want to marry. Sometimes neither a rabbi nor a priest will marry them.”
Some Russians joined the protest against proposed legislation in July which would have permitted towns to bar non-Jewish residents. The legislation, temporarily shelved by the cabinet, was aimed at preventing Arabs moving into Jewish communities.
Immigrants from the former Soviet Union suffered from open displays of anti-Semitism in the FSU and worry that they have come from one kind of prejudice to another. MK Yuri Stern told reporters last year: “When the Russians finally arrive in Israel full of hope and here they encounter hatred as well, they feel displaced and frightened.”
Some of the Orthodox Christians who receive pastoral counseling from Father Aleksandr say that despite tensions in Israeli society between Jews and Christians, Russian immigrants are uniquely placed to help heal rifts.
“Every person like me with a relationship to both Judaism and Christianity has an obligation to encourage tolerance between the religions. I looked for a Russian priest when I got here, and when I found Father Aleksandr he taught me to love every man regardless of religion,” says Daniel Dukarevitch, 19, a medical student at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem whose mother is Christian and father is Jewish.
“Just yesterday I sat with Jews at the university and we had an interesting conversation about the differences and similarities. I explained Christianity’s roots in the Tanach.”
A Christian, Dukarevitch says he wishes his ID card said “Israeli” instead of “Christian” in the nationality clause. “Too bad there is no such option, because that’s the way I feel. I am a patriotic Israeli and you can be patriotic without being Jewish.”
Dukarevitch, who says he has worked as an emissary for the Jewish Agency, traveled several times back to the FSU last year to talk about life in Israel with other teenagers at summer camps. After finishing medical school, he will become an IDF officer and serve for five years in a medical unit, according to a study-work agreement he has signed.
Beyond the human-relations issues, some Russian officials say the state must work harder to protect the dignity of its minorities.
“It is a serious matter for Israel to decide whether or not to welcome into Israeli society those who preserve their beliefs and to give them the same rights as those who are Jews,” says Archimandrite Elisey, head of the Russian Ecclesiastical Mission in Jerusalem, who serves under the Orthodox Archbishop in Moscow.
Father Aleksandr acknowledges that the Christian Russians feel at times maligned but also “don’t always understand how much the State of Israel has spent to bring them here.”
Behind the demeanor of the Israeli public and its relations with the FSU immigrants lurks a powder keg debate about the Law of Return and balancing the identity of a Jewish state while respecting minority rights.
When Israel approved the Law of Return in 1950, it ensured that any Jew could live in the Jewish homeland and attain full Israeli citizenship. This included those with one Jewish parent or grandparent.
In 1970, when the guidelines of immigration eligibility were more clearly defined, another amendment to the law was made so that anyone who is the child or grandchild of a Jew can immigrate, as can their immediate families – including the families of their non-Jewish spouses. The 1970 amendment, however, only minimally changed the flow of immigration into Israel, until the Soviet Union collapsed.
After decades of Soviet repression, hundreds of thousands of Jews had lost their connection to Judaism and a great number of them had intermarried. Suddenly, with its vast and rapid influx into Israel, this community became one of the largest minority groups here and one of the strongest voting blocs.
Once they started to gain public attention, they very quickly went from being celebrated for helping boost the Israeli state to coming under suspicion for being a possible fifth column and population time-bomb waiting to explode. Conservative columnists, politicos and activists started asking why Israel should be investing so much money in and giving so much power to a population that isn’t helping to strengthen the Jewish population.
In 1998, MK Shmuel Halpert of United Torah Judaism, later backed by Shlomo Benizri of Shas, proposed a revision to the 1970 Law of Return amendment, suggesting that the grandfather clause be removed. The proposal ignited fiery debates across the Knesset, but was temporarily shelved, with Labor and the Likud joining forces to oppose it.
In 1999, Natan Sharansky’s Yisrael Ba’aliya party almost dropped out of the government coalition when Shas members started a campaign against the new immigrants for defiling the Jewish character of the state. At a Shas rally against shops selling pork, the Russians were publicly condemned as a negative force importing “obscenity, pornography, prostitution, alcoholism and disease.” The building of churches and the sale of pork have continued to be flashpoint issues with the religious parties.
Most recently, in July, the Knesset rejected another proposal to delete the grandfather clause from the Law of Return, but experts say the larger issues surrounding it will stay on the public agenda.
Immigration and Absorption Deputy Minister Yuli Edelstein will continue a campaign to help stop non-Jewish immigration, but will focus on Jewish Agency practices rather than the Law of Return, he says.
“Emissaries in the FSU are persuading people who are Christian and who don’t have any interest in Judaism or Israel to come here. I promise you if we leave them alone to decide, the demographics of emigration will change dramatically.
“Of course I’m not speaking about a family with one non-Jewish spouse. I’m talking about a family of five or 10 where only one has some distant Jewish relative. It’s stupid to encourage people who have no commonality with the people or the country and to give them rights.”
Jewish Agency leaders also say they seek to increase the Jewish majority, but in a different way.
“For 2,000 years in exile Jews suffered from pogroms, Stalin, the Holocaust, and whatnot. Are we going to tell people that after someone died in Auschwitz that his grandson can’t live in Israel?” says Arieh Azoulay, world chairman of the Jewish Agency’s immigration and absorption committee.
“The FSU immigration was the most meaningful aliya in Israel’s history, it brought many more people than were killed in all the wars. They are helping our economy and I’m not ready to give up on any one person. We can’t force people to be Jewish but we can help them learn and form a connection to Judaism, since they don’t even know what it is.
“If rabbis close the doors on people, of course they will go to church. I prefer they come here where they have a greater chance of becoming Jewish than they would ever have in the USSR or even in the USA. The problem of assimilation and intermarriage is a problem all over the world,” he says.
“Jews live in Christian nations and Christians live in the Jewish nation and that’s a fact. So thank God that in the Torah it says we must love the stranger among us.”
Many Jewish groups in Israel and abroad – organizations, foundations and schools – are trying to reconnect FSU citizens and immigrants to their Jewish heritage. The Jewish Agency is one of the largest donors, sending 140,000 children in the FSU this summer to 130 Jewish summer camps. Israel’s Conservative Movement and its affiliated Schechter Institute of Jewish Learning in Jerusalem was one of the first here a decade ago to launch Jewish-studies classes and clubs in Russian. Deputy Foreign Minister Rabbi Michael Melchior has been active of late in encouraging Russian immigrants to attend the ministry-backed Ulpan Giyur, where new immigrants undergo conversion.
But serious learning about Judaism will never be attractive to all FSU immigrants with Jewish blood and their relatives, and some say that Israel should focus more on encouraging and accepting their Israeli-ness.
When Ya’acov of Kfar Saba finishes reading the article about the new Ethiopian immigrants, he throws down the red blanket and stands to pace the room.
“I’m jealous of them, you know,” he says. “That they came here with so much love in their hearts for the State of Israel. Nobody taught me that before I came here.”
He’d like to do a follow-up study, however, to know how the Ethiopians feel about Israel after five and 10 years.
“Will they still love it as much?” he asks. “Because I came without any love in my heart for Israel, but now I have so much love for this country that I wonder if they could love it as much as me. Either way, though, we are all the same, we are all Israelis.”
Orthodox Christians in Israel? – Finding the right church can be confusing for a former Soviet Union immigrant who observes Orthodox Christianity.
Though there are dozens of Russian Orthodox Church properties around Israel and Palestinian areas, mostly monks, nuns, pilgrims and stragglers will be found praying there, not FSU immigrants.
The Russian churches and monasteries here are all considered foreign missions, run either by the Moscow Patriarchate or the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, which split from the Moscow Patriarchate in 1928 to preserve itself from the ruling Communist regime.
The Jerusalem Orthodox Patriarchate, however, is overseen by the Greek Orthodox Church, which is considered the mother of all the Orthodox Churches here.
“We are the only church that has an Eastern Orthodox patriarch in the State of Israel,” explains Archpriest Father Aleksandr Winogradsky, who oversees the Slavic-speaking Orthodox Christian communities in Israel.
Although there are many different Orthodox communities in Israel, the Greek (most of whose communicants are Arabs), Serb, Russian and Romanian communities all share the same religion. The various churches simply practice some different customs, much like a Yemenite Jewish congregation might differ from an Argentine Jewish congregation. Immigrants from the former Soviet Union can be found praying in any of the non-Russian Orthodox churches, and are often seen in Greek churches.
Though Orthodox Christianity is one religion, the administration and history of the different Russian churches are often at odds with one another.
In Russia in 1928, roughly a decade after the Communist regime came into power, it demanded loyalty from the Russian Orthodox Church.
“Those who chose not to be run by Communist atheists were killed, imprisoned, or went into exile abroad,” according to a nun at the St. Mary Magdalene Church in Jerusalem, who asked not to be identified. “The Russians who went into exile at this time and their descendants around the world today make up the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, which has its current headquarters in New York. The Moscow Patriarchate sees us as dissenters instead of preserving the Orthodox purity. They also think we are less Russian.”
The Russian Ecclesiastical Mission head in Jerusalem, who serves under the Russian Orthodox Patriarchate in Moscow, explains that “After the October Revolution, clerics and nuns were disconnected from the motherland – and became a Russian church abroad of immigrants in diaspora,” says Archimandrite Elisey. “I personally hope they will come back to the bosom of its mother church, otherwise they will be unable to be called Russian Church. As long as they are divided from us they are just representatives of the Russian tradition.”
RUSSIAN PILGRIMS have been coming to the Holy Land for centuries and in 1948, after the Soviet Union recognized the State of Israel, Russian holdings in Israel became the property of the Moscow Patriarchate and those in Jordan became the property of the Russian Church Abroad.
A steely silence between the two Russian Churches was broken after the Oslo Accords when they disagreed over properties that switched from Israeli to Palestinian control. In 1997, monks and nuns from the Church in Exile say they were kicked out of a Hebron Russian monastery, and in 2000, monks and nuns say they were harassed by Palestinian guards who came with members of the Moscow Patriarchate church members to take over a monastery and orchard in Jericho.
“These actions demonstrate that the ‘Reds’ unfortunately work with the Palestinian Authority against their brothers and sister in Christ,” the nun says, using the Communist-era expression “Red ” to describe the Moscow Patriarchate as affiliated with the Red Soviet Army.
“Using that expression is unpleasant and a bad custom,” says Elisey. “We try to refer to the churches by their names, not by old army colors.”
He also says he hopes that Israel, which has expressed interest in supporting the mission, will follow through and make it easier for Russian pilgrims to come to Israel. Although all Russian-speaking Christian Orthodox Israelis fall under the jurisdiction of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate – not the Russian Church missions – they can receive permits regarding matters such as baptism and marriage at any church, including a Russian one. To make matters more complicated, current Greek Patriarch Ireneos has not yet been recognized by Israel. “I’m afraid that if Israel doesn’t recognize him soon this might lead to the creation of an independent Arab Church and even more disunity among the churches,” the nun says
The views expressed are those of the authors, and do not necessarily represent the views of Orthodox Christian News Service, Inc. Copyright (c) 1999, 2000 Orthodox Christian News Service, Inc. All rights reserved.
Story content is Copyright the various content owners.