Here come the Subbotnik Jews
by Michael Freund Just in time for Purim, when we celebrate the ancient deliverance of the Jewish people, a long-suffering Jewish community has received some remarkably good tidings.
After nearly a decade of bureaucratic torment and agony, the remaining Subbotnik Jews of the former Soviet Union will at last be coming home to the Jewish state.
For nearly a century, the Subbotnik Jews had been making aliya without any problems – until 2005, when Israel’s vaunted bureaucrats suddenly and inexplicably halted their immigration.
For nine long years, Shavei Israel, the organization I chair, has been lobbying the government to resume the aliya and reverse the injustice that was done to our Subbotnik Jewish brethren. I met with ministers and Knesset members, civil servants and journalists, and even took the matter to the High Court of Justice.
Thank God, Israel is blessed with an Immigrant Absorption Minister, Sofa Landver, who is attentive and compassionate, and together with the Jewish Agency’s heroic chairman, Natan Sharansky, she has pried the door open once again for the Subbotnik Jews, bringing about a much-needed change in government policy.
The fascinating story of the Subbotniks began over two centuries ago, when a number of Judaizing sects developed among farmers and peasants in southern Russia. No one knows quite sure how or why these movements developed but they spread rapidly and drew tens of thousands of adherents. While remaining Christian, many adopted various Jewish practices, particularly the observance of the “Subbot,” or Jewish Sabbath, hence the name Subbotniks.
But among them was a smaller group which went a step further, leaving behind the Russian Orthodox faith entirely and formally converting to Judaism. They referred to themselves as “the Gerim,” using the Hebrew word for converts, and practiced Judaism openly.
These Subbotnik Jews observed Torah law, married Russian Ashkenazi Jews, and some even sent their children to learn in the great yeshivot of Lithuania and the Ukraine. Over a century ago, the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe even sent an emissary to live and work with the community.
Becoming a Jew in Czarist Russia was a courageous act of faith, but it obviously carried great risks too. And soon enough, the Subbotniks were forced to pay a heavy price for embracing Judaism. According to the late Simon Dubnow, the great historian of Russian and Polish Jewry, Czar Alexander I learned of the existence of the Subbotnik Jews in 1817, when they petitioned him to complain about the anti-Semitism they were suffering “on account of their confessing the law of Moses.”
The Czar became enraged. Not at the fact that some of his subjects were persecuting Jews, of course, but rather because some of them had chosen to become Jews. So he issued a series of cruel decrees against the Subbotniks, which culminated in their deportation and expulsion to the far reaches of the empire.
But despite ongoing Czarist persecution and subsequent Soviet oppression, the Subbotnik Jews stubbornly clung to their Jewishness.
Many were murdered by the Germans after the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. Communism also took a heavy toll, and in recent decades, a growing number of the Subbotnik Jews have succumbed to assimilation and intermarriage, posing a threat to their future as Jews.
That is why it so essential that Israel move quickly to allow the remaining Subbotnik Jews to make aliya – before they assimilate completely and disappear.
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 aliya from Russia which took place during the 1990s.
Prominent figures in our nation’s modern history, such as the late IDF chief of staff Rafael (Raful) Eitan, and the legendary Alexander Zaid, a pioneer of the Second Aliya who founded the “Hashomer” Jewish self-defense group a century ago, were of Subbotnik Jewish descent.
When the aliya was halted in 2005, it caused great hardship to the Subbotnik Jews, 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 Vysoky, and thousands more in other communities throughout Russia, found themselves left behind.
But all that is about to change, as the government prepares to pass a resolution in the coming weeks that will pave the way for the resumption of the Subbotnik Aliya. This historic homecoming will be carried out as part of a unique partnership among the Absorption Ministry, the Jewish Agency, the Chief Rabbinate and Shavei Israel.
For the past decade, the Subbotniks were Russia’s neglected Jews. They struggled valiantly to survive, clinging to their Judaism under the most difficult of circumstances.
After everything they endured, we owe it to them to bring them home. And now, at last, that dream is poised to come true.