Searching for Jewish Genealogy

Observant Jews have been reciting the words "sound the great shofar for our freedom, raise a banner to gather our exiles" three times a day for thousands of years, but which of them imagined it actually taking place in his lifetime? 

The "Ingathering of the Exiles" has, however, come true in the State of Israel and some claim, guardedly, that the percentage of the world's Jews now in Israel is the highest it has been since the days of the first Temple.

Israelis thought – and hoped – that the difficult challenge lay in convincing Jews to leave the Diaspora and move to Israel. It is true that there are Jews who do not feel that they need live in their own land, but those Jews who feel connected to their roots are fully aware that sooner or later, they will either decide to come to the Promised Land of their own volition or be forced to do so.

Israelis know now that bringing diverse and little-known Jewish communities to Israel was the easy part. The real challenge awaited them once the new immigrants began to lead their lives in Israel. Tensions surfaced as the different exiles begin to rub shoulders in their new homeland, with questions being raised about identity, discrimination, alienation and brotherhood. 

Left unanswered since the state's establishment is the critical question, more and more difficult to ignore as time passes, of how, precisely, one defines "Jewish Society." 

The most problematic and crucial aspect of that question is a more basic query: Who is authorized to say that someone is Jewish? For generations, no one dared to ask, but no one really had to. The answer was straightforward: depending on who was consulted, Jews could be identified by their noses or the fact that they were circumcised, while some thought hair or skin color were defining characteristics.

Those answers proved to be wrong. 

The problem became acute as the rate of secularization skyrocketed and the classic means used for recognizing Jews, skullcaps and fringes, beards and women's head-coverings, disappeared.

When Jews came to Israel from Yemen or Morocco there was no need to check out their Jewish antecedents. It was part of their very appearance and served to identify them in the countries in which they had lived.  

When millions of Jews came from the Soviet Union, the United States and France, however, there was no way to know whether they were really Jews or not.

This became an even more difficult problem when Jews arrived from countries such as India and Ethiopia, with whose Jewish communities there had been little, if any, communication.

Statistics show that Israel has absorbed 1.1 million immigrants since the year 1980. The majority, about 70%, are considered halachically Jewish. There is only one problem with that statistic – it has to be proven true.

Anyone who suffered for being Jewish before moving to Israel feels humiliated when someone raises doubts about his Jewish credentials.  Someone who leaves his spacious home as well as his thriving business in the United States because of his love for Israel and suddenly finds that his Jewish identity is being challenged, is in danger of questioning all the basic truths upon which he was raised.  

Among the immigrants are people whose parents survived concentration camps. Imagine a mother who, decades after surviving the horrors to which she was subjected for being considered Jewish, finds herself facing a bureaucrat who certainly never had his own Judaism questioned, knowing that he is the person to decide her daughter's fate…

What can be done? On the one hand, Israel cannot dispense with the process that examines the Judaism of those who wish to join Israeli society as Jews. On the other hand, there has to be a tactful and empathetic way to proceed. 

One little-known project that addresses the problem is the Shorashim (roots) effort run by the Tzohar Organization in the Ukraine and Israel which helps anyone who claims to be Jewish by engaging in genealogical and historical research to find out whether that claim can be certified. Hundreds of families have been accompanied on a trip back to their historical roots and, when the results are positive, on to the Rabbinic Courts to obtain official recognition of Jewish identity.

Just recently, as a result of the story told by a young woman who emigrated from Europe, her family's fascinating history was traced back to the mid–nineteenth century. While searching through documents, her grandparents' names were found on a list written on the train going to Auschwitz and later given to the Red Cross. A list that recorded genocide and contained the names of this young woman's murdered grandparents, might turn out to be the life-raft that saves their granddaughter's Jewish identity.

Conversion of the many thousands of non-halachically Jewish immigrants who came to Israel is a pressing problem which needs to be solved. However, the Jewish identity of many of these families can be recognized through concerted professional  efforts to retrieve the information that will enable them to become an integral part of the return to Zion.

David Stav is co-founder and chairman of the Tzohar Rabbinical Organization, whose mission is "creating an ethical and inclusive Jewish Israel", and serves as rabbi of the Israeli town Shoham.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *