She's Israel's top swimmer. Her parents and grandparents are Jews. She is recognized as a Jew all over the world except one place…
Being written out of the Jewish people
By Seth Farber
As Anna Gostamelsky shattered Israel's national swimming record for the 100-meter freestyle on Sunday evening in Beijing, once again demonstrating her incredible endurance, I couldn't help thinking about another battle she has been fighting, this one for more than six years, and to date unsuccessfully: her bid to be recognized by the rabbinate as Jewish.
Gostamelsky is one of thousands of immigrants from the former Soviet Union who have been unable to convince the rabbinate here that she is Jewish according to halakha (Jewish religious law). As such, she has been denied the right to be married in Israel. When she turned to the organization I direct, ITIM: The Jewish Life Information Center, for help following the Athens Olympic Games, she summed up her feelings as follows: "In more than 150 countries in the world, not only am I Jewish, I represent the Jewish people. Only in Israel do people question my Jewishness."
Gostamelsky's "problem" is that the paperwork she used to establish her eligibility to come on aliyah comes from her paternal line, simply because when she immigrated to Israel in the early 1990s those documents were more readily accessible. But the rules for marrying in Israel are different than the requirements for immigrating and the rabbinate will only accept documentation from the maternal line. Although Gostamelsky has significant evidence - primarily oral testimonies - demonstrating that her mother was born Jewish, the absence of the paperwork the rabbinate takes seriously (in Anna's case, her grandmother's original birth certificate) has thrown Gostamelsky's Jewishness into doubt. The rabbinate refuses to accept these testimonies without the supporting documentation.
Last year more than 4,000 files were opened in rabbinical courts in Israel by people wishing to establish their Jewishness, primarily so they can marry here. Hundreds of other immigrants have not even bothered opening files, knowing that their documentation doesn't meet the bar of the rabbinate, even though they know they are Jewish. And yet not one Israeli politician or public servant has spoken out on this issue. Gradually, thousands of legitimate Jews are slowly being written out of the Jewish people.
The challenges of proving Jewishness don't relate only to immigrants. ITIM, an organization that helps Israelis navigate the rabbinate's labyrinths, has helped hundreds of native Israeli families confront the rabbinate on this issue after their children have become engaged to children of immigrants.
Moreover, the children of thousands of Israeli couples who choose for a variety of reasons to marry outside of the rabbinate's framework (in Cyprus for example) or who choose not to marry at all, will, in the next generation, find themselves in the awkward position of having to prove their Jewishness, despite having grown up as full Jews. I estimate that at least 60 percent of Jewish Israeli families will have to go through this process in the coming two decades.
The fact that a member of Israel's national swimming team is forced to marry outside the rabbinate is scandalous - especially since she respects Jewish tradition and desperately sought a way to be able to marry within the fold. But the issue is much bigger than Anna Gostamelsky's personal story.
Rabbinical courts insist on authentication of Jewishness because the assumption that someone who claims he is a Jew is a Jew - a principle that is, incidentally, codified in the Shulhan Arukh (code of Jewish law) - has been challenged in recent years by ultra-Orthodox poskim (halakhic authorities). These rabbis claim that such an assumption can be made only so long as the claimant is an observant Jew. However, in a society whose members are secular Jews - "those who don't act Jewish," in their words - no such claims hold any real credence.
Thus, just about anyone who seeks to get married in Israel needs to prove his or her Jewish bona fides. Sometimes this means bringing witnesses, but more often than not, especially when those involved were not born in Israel, it means providing documentation. ITIM has developed expertise in helping individuals meet the rabbinic requirements, even though the entire endeavor is deeply troubling.
As an Orthodox rabbi, I care deeply about high standards of halakha. At the same time, when suspicion and unjust behavior become the calling cards of those authorities whose mission is to preserve Jewish law, I feel it is important to speak out. As a nation, we may and perhaps should agree on one definition of Jewishness. But there ought to be room for multiple expressions within that definition. And more important, the level of proof demanded to meet that definition ought not to be unreasonable.
Given the fragile and temporal state of Israeli politics, it seems unrealistic to expect that the rabbinical courts will be dismantled over this issue. However, it is within our grasp to insist that those rabbinical judges who are appointed understand that the Jewish people transcend the Orthodox community. Moreover, it is important that both secular and Orthodox Jews understand that they have the right to demand that rabbinical court judges engage the issue of Jewishness authentication. The status quo is untenable. Jewishness authentication is an issue that relates to the entire Jewish people, not merely to the Orthodox.
If we don't begin to speak out soon, it won't only be one of our Olympic swimmers who can't prove she's Jewish.
Rabbi Seth (Shaul) Farber, Ph.D. is the founding director of ITIM (www.itim.org.il) and the founding rabbi of Kehilat Netivot in Ra'anana.