Combatting Assimilation: An Ancient and Modern Commandment
It was recently reported that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was quoted as saying that the future of world Jewry was limited to the Orthodox community — and that within two generations, all non-Orthodox factions of Diaspora Jewry would fade into history.
Without questioning the veracity of this report, and also knowing full well that the prime minister recognizes the importance of every Jew — wherever he or she might be found — it would be irresponsible of any concerned Jewish leader not to appreciate the threat posed by assimilation to our continued existence.
Assimilation is typically viewed as a challenge facing the Diaspora. It is believed that the greatest engine that fuels Jews to become quickly acclimated with non-Jewish society is intermarriage.
Jews in most parts of the world are involved in daily encounters with non-Jews — in business, in culture and in recreation. The result is that Jews and non-Jews develop relationships that lead to dating, marriage and building families together. And however well-intentioned the couple might be on their wedding days (in those cases where the offspring might be deemed halachicly Jewish), the children that result from those marriages are often less likely to build Jewish homes and embrace that tradition.
This is a modern-day tragedy for our people, and one that deserves to be combatted in all ways possible.
The need to combat assimilation, as an integral commandment of who we are as a people, becomes all that much more evident as we commemorate Hanukkah.
The holiday recognizes numerous miracles and accomplishments of Jews at the time of the Greek conquest. From the miracle of the oil to the victory of the few against the mighty, perhaps the most lasting lesson of the Hanukkah story is the need to combat the forces of assimilation. The Greeks, like enemies throughout history, fought a spiritual battle to lead our people astray. If that campaign of assimilation, which would have wiped Jewry off the map as effectively as any physical destruction, would have succeeded, we would not be who we are today.
It is therefore imperative that we continue to recognize this threat and open our eyes to ways to combat it. Yet, it would also be ignorant to assume that assimilation is a challenge reserved only for Diaspora Jews.
Certainly in the Western world, where the majority of Diaspora Jews find themselves today, the threat is most prevalent. It is there that that social integration discussed above exists most, and goes unchecked.
But remarkably, it also exists here in Israel too, as a result of a confluence of historical and bureaucratic factors.
Historically, until the 1990s, the majority of the immigrant population in Israel — which had been responsible for creating the modern demographic that made up the Jewish state — consisted of peoples who were undeniably Jewish. There was great diversity in looks and customs, as Jews came from across both the Ashkenazi and Sephardi worlds. But few questioned whether these people were halachic Jews.
The influx of immigrants from the former Soviet Union changed all that.
For among the more than one million people who arrived in that blessed immigration, were several hundred thousands who were either not-Jewish — or whose Jewishness could not be easily verified.
In the early years following their arrival, this reality went largely unnoticed. Committed to our historic and modern pledge to be a land that welcomed the ingathering of the exiles, few questions were asked, and all of these immigrants were seen as part of the large “Russian Aliyah.”
But in more recent years, the identities of these immigrants began to pose a real challenge to the fabric of Israel’s Jewish society.
These immigrants, or more often their children, were achieving successful social acclimation and they began to meet, date and fall in love with their fellow Israelis. Suddenly, when they came to marry one another, the descendants of Soviet Jewry were being told that their Judaism was not good enough for their new homeland.
The options which we faced as a nation, and which we continue to face today, were two-fold: Find a solution that would ensure their Jewishness and preserve the sanctity of Jewish tradition and families — or, simply leave our heads in the sand and let these couples marry one another and ignore whether their children might then be legitimately Jewish.
There are some who would be content with the second option.
But at Tzohar, as an organization that recognized that halachic observance and modern society need not clash, we sought to find a solution.
That solution is an initiative called Shorashim, Roots, which goes deep into the archives in Russia and Ukraine to discover definitive proof that these individuals are in fact of Jewish ancestry. And where that proof can’t be found, the person is able to halachically convert and ensure that their children remain embraced and treasured members of our Jewish family.
Fighting assimilation is not an isolated or limited task, but rather one that remains as ever critical today as it was thousands of years ago. Today, our enemy might not be as evil as the ancient Greeks, but our willingness to overcome must be as resolute as in those storied days of Hanukkah.