The Subbotniks are descendants of Russian peasants in the Voronezh region, located hundreds of miles south of Moscow. The peasants converted to Judaism nearly two centuries ago and clung to their new religion despite facing persecution and discrimination at the hands of the Czars.
They came to be known as "Subbotniks," as a result of their observance of the Subbot, or Jewish Sabbath. In the early 19th century, Czar Alexander I expelled them from their homes and deported them to various parts of his empire as punishment for their adoption of Judaism. During World War II, many Subbotniks in Russia and the Ukraine were murdered by the Nazis.
Since the beginning of the mass aliyah (immigration) from the former Soviet Union, thousands of Subbotniks have moved to Israel. Although they are Jews according to Jewish law (halakhah) in every respect, former Interior Minister Avraham Poraz imposed restrictions on their immigration in 2003, claiming their Jewish origins were unclear.
The Shavei Israel organization has been in the forefront of efforts on behalf of the Subbotniks. On a recent visit to the Subbotnik village of Vysoki, not far from Russia’s border with the Ukraine, Shavei Israel Chairman Michael Freund met with dozens of members of the community, most of whom have relatives and friends already living in Israel. Some 800 Subbotniks live in Vysoki, and they told Freund about the anti-Semitism they continue to endure at the hands of their non-Jewish neighbors, which includes job discrimination, threats and verbal abuse.
The Subbotniks presented Freund with a petition addressed to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, demanding the right to join their loved ones in Israel.
“After returning to Jerusalem, I contacted the Prime Minister’s Office and sent them the Subbotniks’ petition,” Freund said. “I also insisted on receiving an explanation as to how the government could possibly justify its policy on legal, Zionist and moral grounds.”
Shortly thereafter, dozens of Subbotnik families in Vysoki were granted approval to make aliyah. Many of them had been waiting more than three years for an answer from Israel’s Interior Ministry. Over a dozen Subbotnik Jews from the community moved to Israel last month and settled in the Beit Shemesh area outside of Jerusalem.
While pleased at this “positive development”, Freund says he is far from satisfied, noting that there are thousands of Subbotnik Jews located in various parts of the former Soviet Union who still wish to come to Israel.
He cites research carried out by Dr. Velvl Chernin, an ethnographer who works as a Jewish Agency emissary in Moscow. Chernin shows that there are an estimated 10,000 Subbotniks spread throughout Russia, Ukraine, Siberia and the Caucasus.
Chernin asserts that Soviet-imposed assimilation on the Subbotniks succeeded in weakening the younger generation's ties to Judaism such that unless they are allowed to come to Israel, they will largely disappear within a generation or two.
“The Subbotniks are Jews in every respect, and we need to pressure Israel’s government to save them before it is too late,” Freund said. “They want to come to Israel, and it is shameful that the Interior Ministry continues to place obstacles in their path. They braved czarist cruelty and Soviet repression to be Jews, at great risk to their lives and well-being. Don’t we owe it to them now to bring them home?”
For more information on the Subbotniks, contact: Michael@shavei.org.