Absorption and its Difficulties

The religious establishment in Israel relates to the entire aliyah from the FSU with suspicion and hostility and their every meeting with religious institutions from birth to death is fraught with difficulties. Those of us who are Jewish according to Halacha have to undergo a humiliating process with the rabbinate to prove our Judaism.

“Who is the landlord?” That is a critical question with regard to everything pertaining to the Jewish future of the State of Israel. I dealt with that question when I was a child, without even knowing it. In a poem about the meeting between myself – a  “Russian” girl – and  my religious neighbors, I expressed my feelings that here, in the Jewish state, we would never be “Jewish enough.”

Nothing’s Changed

On the way home, I chanced upon

a launch for a book of poems.

The poetess sat in the first row

a hall full of tearful voices.

From a bench to the side, I listened

how beautiful people read

serious poems

I couldn’t understand.

I remembered when I was seven

and our nice religious neighbors

invited us

to Seder night.

We came all dressed up

dad wore the red kippah from the cemetery

and mum brought flowers.

Everyone was ready and prepared.

We sat at the end of the table and smiled

when they sang all the songs

and we said amen in the right places

and when the children began to read

the Four Questions,

I practiced silently

word after word

that I couldn’t understand.

When it was my turn, I was ready.

I proudly recited a whole line,

and the nice woman

said thank you,

how nice,

charming child

never mind,

we already read that.

Silly Girl of the Regime: A Migration Portrait / Alex Rif

(Yael Gloverman, ed., Pardes Publishing, 2018; English translation of the poem by Ilan Evyatar)

Today, I have the words to say to that girl: You didn’t miss the story. The story of Zionism and the establishment of the Jewish state is your story. You don’t have to recite the words of a poem or change your language or your consciousness; your Jewish identity is the fulfillment of the Zionist vision. In this essay, I will present, from an insider perspective, our Jewish story – the story of the Jews of the Former Soviet Union. It is our paramount duty to do so because for too long we remained silent and let other people tell our story. Anyone listening to this story will be able to hear the voice of Jewish identity that emerges from the questions of religion and state and the great commitment to the broad story of the Jewish people and the State of Israel.


Much has been written about the tensions between the different identities existing in the State of Israel. It was into these inherent tensions that the aliyah from the Soviet Union arrived in the 1990s. It was an aliyah that desired to connect to the Land of the Jews and was full of hopes for freedom and a better future for the next generation. However, 30 years on from this era-defining period, it appears that the Israeli public has accepted the point of view that the new immigrants have created a conflict. Those new immigrants who are not Jewish according to Halacha have had to accept the fact that despite being citizens they cannot marry in their own country. Those who consider themselves Jewish, or “religiously unclassified” have become a “problem.” They find themselves part of a divided society that looks through “halachic glasses” to distinguish between Jews and non-Jews and thus negates their personal self-identity.

Paradoxically, it is the national identity of Jews in the Former Soviet Union, albeit an identity imposed on them by social or institutional antisemitism, that can teach the State of Israel a thing or two. Paradoxically, it is this sense of Jewish nationality that can create a wider foundation for civil solidarity in Israel, at least when it comes to the Jewish side of things. One cannot reduce the identity of immigrants from the Soviet Union to the question of religion or “religion unclassified.” Not because they do not have a religion but because historical circumstances created a Jewish society deprived of a religion, and even deprived of God. In Israel, all of this changed dramatically because of their integration into society and their renewed identification with Jewish tradition. It is complex, in fact almost impossible, to determine Jewish nationality without religion, but creating a distinction between them enables a return to the perspective of the early Zionists in Odessa and a realization of at least part of their vision some 100 years later.

In 1991, when I was five years old, I made aliyah from the Soviet Union together with my family. I was just one of a million immigrants who left a collapsing state to look for a better future for their children. When we arrived in the Jewish state, my family and I knew very little about Judaism. For seventy years, my motherland had been a dictatorship where all vestiges of religion were erased. Judaism, like all other religions, was illegal. Religions were replaced by the Communist Party and the worship of its icons. God was replaced by Stalin. All religious practice was considered as subversion against the regime: Baking matzah on Passover was forbidden; so was wearing a kippah or undergoing circumcision. During the Stalinist era, Jews who practiced Jewish law or possessed Jewish religious texts faced the risk of being dismissed from their jobs, imprisoned, or worse.

And so, for three generations, one of the largest Jewish communities in Europe underwent a process of cultural erasure. In 1917, with the outbreak of the communist revolution, most Jews lived in Jewish communities within the Pale of Settlement and lived a religious lifestyle. But in 1990, when the Soviet Union collapsed, most Jews lived in the big cities. The community as an institution no longer existed and most Jews were not familiar with Jewish traditions. What the Jews of the Soviet Union were left with was their national identity. While their traditions and culture were made illegal and were systematically erased by the establishment, their national affiliation was maintained and specifically emphasized in their passports and identity cards. Nationality even served as a pretext for discrimination and persecution. The Soviet Jew was required to abandon his Jewish tradition, while at the same time, he was constantly reminded of his Judaism by the authorities and by his surroundings. However, this was also what kept the Jews of the Soviet Union a distinct national group; it is what singled the Jews out as different from other Soviets, and it is what has enabled them to renew their identity in the State of Israel.

The ability to live a traditional Jewish life was taken away from the Jews of the Soviet Union, but their Jewish identity remained strong. Even if they were unable to maintain communal life, they most certainly maintained a “Jewish existence” – both above and below the surface – even under the Communist regime. This phenomenon has been described as “Soviet Jewish thin culture” (a term coined by Prof. Ya’akov Ro’i) but one should not be confused by this phrase – it refers to layer upon layer of Jewish existence, even if those layers are thin, in all fields of life, and in the difficult conditions imposed by the Communist regime. Jews always knew who else in their environment was Jewish, even in the absence of an official community. They spent their time with each other, married among themselves, and worshipped academic excellence as a means of combatting antisemitism, which was always prevalent below the surface and prevented many Jews from being accepted to universities and preeminent places of employment.

All the while, the presence of the State of Israel loomed in the background. When the state was established in 1948, the Jews of the Soviet Union looked at it with a degree of awe, and with understandable reserve. After all, Stalin was still alive. The establishment of the state also saw increased hostility toward the Jews who were suspected of dual loyalty and had to be cautious about publicly expressing their support for the young country. However, Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War in 1967 became a day of celebration for many Soviet Jews: There were Jews in the world fighting for their free and independent Jewish state, and they were victorious! The few against the many, just as in the holiday whose name many could perhaps no longer remember. The 1960s saw the beginning of a Zionist awakening in the Soviet Union, especially in big cities like Moscow, St. Petersburg and Riga. The number of Zionist activists wishing to study Judaism and Israeli texts, and of course to make aliyah to Israel, increased. These activists wanted a part in the re-establishment of the Jewish state, but the Soviet Union had closed its gates to them. For many long years, they struggled, the few against an intractable and vengeful dictatorship. Most requests to leave for Israel were turned down, and many who submitted such requests were dismissed from their jobs, incarcerated for long periods, or sent into far-away exile – all to suppress their desire to make aliyah. It was not only those who tried to make aliyah who paid a price, but their families as well.

Aliyah activism was sparked 42 years ago, in 1970, by “Operation Wedding,” the codename for an attempt by a group of “refuseniks” to hijack a plane that had no other passengers accept the hijackers themselves in order to draw the world’s attention to the fact that Jews were being denied the possibility to leave the  Soviet Union to make aliyah. The hijacking led to the global “Let my people go” movement, at the core of which stood tens of thousands of Soviet Jews fighting from the inside, and millions of Jews around the world supporting them from the outside and calling for the release of the Jews of the Soviet Union. The movement registered great achievements in creating international pressure on global leadership, in particular that of the United States, which in turn pressured the government of the Soviet Union, and it made a major contribution to the opening of the gates of the Soviet Union and the exodus of some 160,000 Jews in the 1970s and a million-and-a-half more in the 1990s.

There is always a vanguard, the fighters who pave the way through the strength of their ideology, and the masses follow, thrust into movement by inertia. Over a million Jews arrived in Israel in this way in the 1990s. In many ways this was an aliyah of Jews who had survived Stalinism against all the odds — they had survived the destruction of their synagogues, the erasure of Jewish holidays and Jewish names, and pervasive antisemitism. It was an aliyah that was a miracle; it was an overt miracle that a million Jews, despite everything they had been through, managed to retain a  Jewish identity of one sort or another. It is true that not all of them were Zionists and that most of them had very little knowledge of Jewish traditions, but they came to Israel nevertheless and most of them decided to stay and raise Jewish, Israeli, Sabra children. Unfortunately, however, from a perspective of 30 years since that aliyah, we can say without doubt that the State of Israel failed in the absorption of Russian-speaking Israelis into Judaism and that the reason for this failure is the fact that there is no separation of religion and state in Israel. Since our aliyah and to this very day, we have been and are second-class Jews. The State of Israel does not recognize the unique nature of the Jews of the Former Soviet Union and has not provided them with a full and equal solution which opens the doors of Judaism for them in a real way.

The religious establishment in Israel relates to the entire aliyah from the FSU with suspicion and hostility and their every meeting with religious institutions from birth to death is fraught with difficulties. Those of us who are Jewish according to Halacha have to undergo a humiliating process with the rabbinate to prove our Judaism. The 400,000 of us who are not Jewish according to Halacha cannot marry in Israel and we cannot be buried alongside our Jewish partners in the same cemetery. Those of us who wish to undergo conversion come up against patronizing and laborious procedures and many decide not to go ahead or give up mid-way through the process. In a poll conducted by the Jerusalem Institute for Policy Research and the One Million Lobby, 45% of the respondents between the ages of 18 to 45 replied that they were not Jewish according to Halacha but would nevertheless be interested in undergoing a conversion procedure if changes were made to existing procedures; for example, if the process were to be more personal and show more cultural sensitivity (Abramzon Brosh, Sapozhnikova and Levi, 2021). Nevertheless, 94% of the 1.2 million Russian-speaking Israelis define themselves as Jews, even though the Rabbinate only recognizes 74% of them as such. These people have no other identity. Thirty years have passed and the State of Israel has failed resolutely to fully absorb the aliyah from the Soviet Union. The catastrophe for the Jewish people is that both the establishment and the religious institutions have failed to this day to absorb us into Judaism and to open a door for us that will allow us to bridge seventy years of life under a totalitarian regime that sought to erase our Judaism.

Parshat Nitzavim says: “Then, the Lord, your God, will bring back your exiles, and He will have mercy upon you. He will once again gather you from all the nations, where the Lord, your God, had dispersed you. Even if your exiles are at the end of the heavens, the Lord, your God, will gather you from there, and He will take you from there.”  (Deuteronomy, Chapter 30: 3-4). However, we frequently hear from political and religious sources that the “grandchild clause” of the Law of Return is a disaster for the Jewish people as it “allows tens of thousands of non-Jews to immigrate to the State of Israel every year” including those who “continue to practice another religion” (Nachshoni, 2022). The grandchild clause, an amendment made to the Law of Return in 1970, determined that the children and grandchildren of Jews are eligible to make aliyah even if they are not Jewish themselves. The debate on annulling this clause is no less than a spit in the face of the immigrants from the Former Soviet Union. The message to those Israeli citizens who are not halachically Jewish is, “You are here by accident, and from now on we will rectify this error and not allow those like you to enter.” Instead of embracing the children and grandchildren who are coming home, we are slamming the door shut on them! So far, forty-four thousand new immigrants have arrived in Israel from Russia and Ukraine since the Russian invasion in February 2022. Had we not been able to take in our brothers and sisters during this war, where would we have buried our shame?

Today, I am the CEO of the One Million Lobby, a non-profit set up two years ago by social activists from the “1.5 generation,” the youth of the aliyah of the 1990s. We seek to work for the rights and needs of 1.2 million Israelis from the FSU and to tell decision-makers that from this moment onward, “nothing about us, without us!” It is not enough for us to be integrated into the state. We want to lead it to a better place, to make it an egalitarian Jewish state for the sake of all the Jews living in Israel; we seek to do so in a manner that opens the door – with tolerance, respect for heritage and history, and with love and Jewish humanity.

In my view, a Jewish state is a state that evolves, a state that learns and grows constantly, a state that cannot exist without me, just as I cannot exist without her. We are engaged in our activism first and foremost as Israelis, but that is not enough. We need all of Israeli society to stand with us and join us to influence the Jewish character of the State of Israel.


Dvora Abramzon Brosh, Inna Orly Sapozhnikova and Dganit Levi (2021) “Recommendations for Eliminating Systemic Barriers for Russian Speaking Israelis: Conversion, Civil Service Representation and Access to Rights for Older Adults. Jerusalem Institute for Policy Research” (Commissioned by the One Million Lobby)

Nachshoni, Kobi (December 13, 2022) “Israel’s chief rabbi calls to amend Law of Return to preserve country’s Jewish identity” Ynet

Alex Rif is a poet and  social entrepreneur and activist; she is the founder of The Cultural Brigade, CEO of the One Million Lobby non-profit, and one of the creators of the documentary series Generation 1.5 (Kan 11)