Claiming Your Jewish Identity In Israel

Orthodox rabbi Seth Farber writes:

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.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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