Efraim Halevy, who has previously served as the Head of Israel’s Mossad Intelligence Agency, is the incoming Chairman of a program that will help certify the Jewish identities of thousands of immigrants, primarily from the former Soviet Union.
These certifications are mandatory under Israeli law for any couple of questionable ancestry who are looking to marry under official Israeli law.
Halevy's announcement that he is joining the Shorashim program leadership came at the annual meeting of the Shorashim (Roots) program, which is an initiative of the Tzohar Rabbinical Organization. Halevy was officially announced as the program’s Incoming Chair.
Shorashim is backed by generous support from the Harry Triguboff Foundation based in Sydney, Australia, together with the Friedberg Charitable Foundation of Toronto, Canada and with funding from the Government of Israel. The program operates out of offices in Moscow and Kiev and the first center in Israel to assist couples with the documentation-identification process was opened last week with the attendance of Mr. Harry Triguboff.
According to Professor Zeev Khanin, Chief Scientist of Israel’s Ministry of Immigrant Absorption, who addressed the meeting, since the fall of the Soviet Union, over one million people have immigrated to Israel. Accounting for natural demographic patterns compounded with a certain percentage of people who chose to leave Israel of their own initiative, approximately 975,000 people living in Israel today describe themselves as of Russian origin.
Because more than twenty-five percent of this community are believed to be non-Jewish under Jewish law, Israeli law mandates that couples must provide documentary proof of their Judaism before they are allowed to marry in Israel. Assisting couples with this task, which often requires extensive and costly research, has become the work of the Shorashim project under the guidance of Tzohar rabbis.
“For years we were imploring these Jews to come home to Israel and now we’re going to reject them because they can’t easily prove their Jewish ancestry?” Mr. Halevy asked. “There is an answer and that is what this program offers. But if we don’t commit ourselves to it then we’ll go down as the biggest traitors in Jewish history.”
The process is often extremely painstaking and involves sending emissaries into archives and cemeteries in tiny Russian and Ukrainian villages to obtain the levels of proof necessary to determine that an immigrant to Israel is of certain Jewish ancestry. Once procured, the documentation is then presented to Israeli rabbinical courts before an individual’s proof of Judaism can be confirmed.
Rabbi David Stav, the founder and President of Tzohar, who is also a leading candidate for the position of Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel addressed the meeting saying, “We can’t even begin to comprehend the value of what is being done here and this is truly a historic effort.”
Couples not afforded the assistance offered by Shorashim often will enter marriage without halachic approval, a situation which effectively would define their children as non-Jews under Israeli law. Those who are determined not to be of Jewish descent are provided with support to convert under compassionate rabbinic guidance.
With the number of immigrants from the former Soviet Union representing a sizable percentage of Israeli society and their acclimation into the country’s population increasing at a steady rate, Mr. Halevy said that the scope of the challenge cannot be underestimated. “We are literally building the very structure that will ultimately preserve the continuity of the Jewish people in our ancestral homeland.”