Subbotnik Jews
Subbotnik Jews Gabi Newman

A small group of Jews who loved the Shabbat in Russia and persevered it for hundreds of years despite communist rule is currently struggling says Michael Freund, the head of the Shavei Yisrael organization - and the organization is working to help the community there and in Israel strengthen their Jewish identity. 

Approximately 20,000 Subbotnik Jews remain in the former Soviet Union, Freund said, and are awaiting the day when they could make Aliyah (immigration) to Israel.

Meanwhile, thousands of Jews have made Aliyah already, he said, and live in Beit Shemesh near Jerusalem. 

The saga of the Subbotnik Jews began over two centuries ago, when a group of Russian peasants decided to convert to Judaism.

They were forced to pay an extremely heavy price for their choice, including the kidnapping of their children and the forced expulsion of the community by Czar Alexander I to the far reaches of the empire. 

Beginning with the Second Aliyah more than a century ago, thousands of them moved to Israel and quickly found their niche in the heart of the pioneering efforts to settle the Land. 

Their descendants include prominent figures such as 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.

During World War II, the Nazis murdered thousands of them, and they were subsequently persecuted by the Communists for their beliefs.

Nonetheless, they remained steadfast and refused to abandon Judaism. There are believed to be approximately 20,000 Subbotnik Jews still living in the former Soviet Union. Over the past decade, a large number made Aliyah, especially from the southern Russian villages of Ilyinka and Vysoky, and many of them now live in Beit Shemesh outside of Jerusalem.