For the past 15 years, hundreds of Subbotnik Jews in the village of Vysoky in southern Russia have been languishing in limbo, anxiously awaiting the opportunity to make aliyah and be reunited with their loved ones in the Jewish state.
Although untold numbers moved to Israel over the past century without any problems, inexplicable bureaucratic hurdles arose in the early 2000s, and their immigration has been stalled ever since.
With a new Israeli government now in place, the time has come to remove the obstacles in their path and save Russia's Subbotnik Jews before it is too late.
THE SUBBOTNIK Jews should not be confused with the "Subbotniks," an entirely separate group of Russian Christians who chose to observe Shabbat.
The Subbotnik Jews' story, like much of Jewish history, is rife with faith and determination yet also punctuated with terrible suffering and tragedy.
The origins of the Subbotnik Jews trace back to the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when Judaizing sects arose in southern Russia for reasons that scholars have struggled to explain. According to Tsarist archives and Russian church documents of the time, the movement spread rapidly and grew to number in the tens of thousands.
While remaining Christians, many adherents took on some Jewish practices, such as observing the "Subbot," or Sabbath, on Saturdays, leading them to be referred to as "Subbotniks."
Among them, however, was a small group that left behind the Russian Orthodox faith and underwent conversion to Judaism. Referring to themselves as the "Gerim," using the Hebrew word for converts, they began to practice Judaism openly, which in Tsarist Russia was no small feat.
The Subbotnik Jews observed Jewish law, married Russian Ashkenazi Jews in the city of Voronezh, and some sent their children to study in yeshivot in Lithuania and the Ukraine.
Their embrace of Judaism did not go unnoticed, and the Russian regime wasted little time in trying to destroy the movement.
According to the late Simon Dubnow, the great historian of Russian and Polish Jewry, Tsar Alexander I learned of the existence of the Subbotnik Jews in 1817, when they petitioned him to complain about the antisemitism they were suffering "on account of their confessing the law of Moses."
Rather than protecting his subjects, the tsar chose to persecute them. He issued a series of cruel decrees against the Subbotnik Jews, which included kidnapping their children, and which culminated in their deportation to the far reaches of eastern Siberia.
Over time, many migrated back, settling again in southern Russia or the Ukraine while valiantly trying to preserve their identity in the face of Tsarist and later Soviet oppression.
In the 1920s, the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, sent an emissary named Rabbi Chaim Lieberman to live and work with the community. He established a kosher slaughterhouse as well as a tallit, or prayer shawl, factory, which were manned by Subbotnik Jews and which serviced Jewish communities throughout Russia. They operated until Lieberman was arrested and murdered by the Communists in 1937 for his promotion of Judaism.
When the Germans invaded the Soviet Union during World War II, they murdered many Subbotnik Jews on account of their Jewishness.
Subsequently, in the dark days of Stalinist Russia, the Subbotnik Jews faced oppression and persecution because of their stubborn insistence on remaining faithful to Judaism.
Prominent figures in our nation's modern history, such as the late IDF chief of staff Rafael Eitan and the legendary Alexander Zaid, a pioneer of the Second Aliyah, who founded Hashomer, a Jewish self-defense group, a century ago, were of Subbotnik Jewish descent. So, too, was Yossi Korakin, a legendary commander in Israel's vaunted special operations naval unit Shayetet 13, who died during a counterterrorism operation against Hezbollah in Lebanon in September 1997.
Decades of Soviet Communism took a heavy toll, and in recent years a growing number of the Subbotnik Jews have unfortunately succumbed to assimilation and intermarriage, posing a threat to their future as Jews.
THAT IS why it is so essential that Israel move quickly to allow the remaining Subbotnik Jews to make aliyah.
Prior to 2005, hundreds of Subbotnik Jews from the village of Vysoky in southern Russia moved to Israel, while thousands from other parts of the former Soviet Union came during the great wave of aliyah from Russia which took place during the 1990s.
When the aliyah of the Subbotnik Jews was halted in 2005, it caused them great hardship, dividing families and sending a message to those still in Russia that they were not really welcome in the Jewish state.
The result was that hundreds of Subbotnik Jews in the village of Vysoky found themselves left behind.
The treatment meted out to them has been simply inexcusable. There is no reason why it should be so difficult for them to make aliyah and return to the Jewish people.
Indeed, in a recent article in Tchumin, a halachic journal, Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, the chief rabbi of Moscow, published a lengthy and meticulously researched study of the Subbotnik Jews. His conclusion is that "we cannot avert our eyes from this community and leave them to their fate." Doing so, he writes, is likely to lead to them being lost to the Jewish people within a matter of just a few years. There is, Goldschmidt concludes, "a great foundation to judge them to be kosher converts," and hence they should be brought on aliyah to Israel, where they can undergo an additional process to remove any doubts that may exist about their Jewish status.
This, too, was the position recently taken by Rabbi Asher Weiss, one of the most prominent haredi decisors of Jewish law.
In light of this, I call upon the prime minister and the Israeli government to take immediate action to bring the remaining Subbotnik Jews on aliyah. Time is of the essence.
The Subbotnik Jews courageously clung to their Jewishness for two centuries, surviving Tsarist oppression, Nazi persecution and Soviet tyranny. We owe it to them and to their forefathers to cut the red tape and enable them at last to come home.