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Shouldn’t religious observance, or lack of it, be a personal choice?

A Jewish worshipper covers himself with a prayer shawls as he prays at the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City, during the priestly blessing at the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, Oct. 12, 2022. (Photo: Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

At some point in time, the recognition of one’s Jewish ethnicity became completely dependent upon that same individual embracing the Jewish faith, as defined by rabbinical authorities.  

Failure to do so was met with a consequence of not being considered “one of the tribe,” essentially disqualifying that person from gaining entrance to their ancestral homeland – Israel.  

It didn’t matter that Israel was established as a refuge to protect Jews, throughout the world, who would never again have to rely upon the mercy of a host country to grant them a safe place to live. Unless you could prove allegiance and loyalty to the Jewish faith, as prescribed by the rabbinate, you were locked out.  

A number of cases went before Israel's Supreme Court, none more well-known than that of Brother Daniel, born Oswald Rufeisen, a Jew from the Polish town of Krakow. Having become a Carmelite Monk, while hiding out in a monastery after saving the lives of countless Jews by pretending to be a Nazi sympathizer, Rufeisen was shamelessly denied citizenship, despite his ethnicity of which he proudly claimed, not to mention his fierce bravery and heroic acts.

Others, throughout the years, who have chosen beliefs that do not comport with Orthodox Judaism, have, likewise, systematically been denied citizenship and given the excuse that they are “no longer Jewish.” In effect, someone or some group decided that their ethnicity was no longer relevant or valid. The expiration date or shelf life on their Jewishness ended once they rejected a faith, which they believed did not express their own sense of godliness, piety, accurate interpretation or the path that leads one to redemption and ultimate peace with God.

But the question is: “Who is that someone or group of people who have successfully been able to exclude Jewish born individuals from gaining access to a homeland, which would secure their safety from those who would hunt them down and kill them?” Let’s be clear, their pursuers couldn’t care less what they believe as it pertains to matters of faith.

It seems to me that, much like political beliefs, matters of faith are extremely personal and very individual. They come from a deep place, after generally undergoing a great deal of inner searching and questioning, until a strong conviction emerges which often becomes the solid anchor in someone’s life. Because that is different for each person, and because those convictions are very powerful and secure, people have often said that, in order to prevent arguments, it’s best to avoid discussions of politics and religion.

Unfortunately, when passions on these two particular topics are expressed, offenses can easily be taken if someone vehemently disagrees with the basis of what is being said. But although many wisely avoid the landmine that can come from these discussions, Israel’s immigration policy actually demands full disclosure of the personally held and deeply felt individual religious beliefs of any potential candidates who wish to live here.  

Knowing this in advance, the choice for those who do not adhere to the Jewish faith at all – meaning that they are either unaffiliated, define themselves as atheists or perhaps believe another expression of what they see as being more authentic or accurate to the Jewish scriptures – have the choice of either lying, cleverly withholding facts or admitting the truth. However, such an admission would ensure their inability to live in their homeland, but sadly, that is what is happening right now, during one of the most perilous times in all of history when being identified as ethnically Jewish can seriously endanger a Jew’s survival in many places.

It wasn’t that long ago that we saw ethnic Jews hunted down in major American cities – not Nazi Germany of the 1940s, but in America! Why? Because Israel had tried to defend herself as Hamas rockets were being launched by the hour throughout Israeli cities, and haters of Israel decided to go after members of the tribe, regardless of having any connection to the Jewish homeland or its policies – which they clearly didn’t.

So, again, I ask the question, “Who thinks it’s a great idea to risk the lives of ethnic Jews, persecuted for having the same blood that runs in their veins of those who don’t consider them Jewish enough to be accepted as fellow citizens?”

And why force the issue of full disclosure as it concerns one’s religious choices?  Aren’t those personal and private persuasions which are best left unasked? 

In an interesting column, entitled, “Zionists Didn’t Wait for the Messiah,” the author, Uri Pilichowski concludes with this: “Israel’s future depends on ensuring the rightful place of all Jews, irrespective of their political and religious positions.”  

Nothing could be truer than this statement!  If Israel continues to be unable to accommodate ALL Jews, regardless of their personally held positions on matters of the faith, then Israel must recognize that she can no longer claim to be the protector of Jews worldwide, because too many of them have made choices which deviate from rabbinical authorities. 

Although the Rufeisen case resulted in a flat denial for citizenship, that was decided in the 1960s. It is high time that Israel, the Jewish homeland and only real refuge of her people, recognize that in the year 2023, the situation of the Jewish people is that 61% of them who have married since 2010 are not married to a Jew.

A lot of those same Jews might end up being excluded and disenfranchised from their own homeland if they have possibly chosen to support the faith of their Gentile spouse. Nonetheless, they remain ethnically Jewish by blood and culturally Jewish by choice.

Will Israel forget them, cast them off and allow them to be the next victims who could have and should have been allowed entrance to their homeland but were looked upon as traitors to their people?

Interestingly enough, this phenomenon only applies to Jews who were born outside of Israel, because there are millions of Israeli-born Jews who have no connection to rabbinical Judaism. Those Jews can live in whatever manner they please, because they were born in Israel, and no one can deny them their homeland.

Shouldn’t the same rights and privileges be afforded to Jews who were born outside of the land but who want to come home?

Why should one’s personal religious choice be the singular deciding factor which determines who is a Jew? 

It should not! And Israel must change its policy in order to make sure that every Jew, regardless of their personal belief system, truly has a safe refuge in which to turn.

A former Jerusalem elementary and middle-school principal and the granddaughter of European Jews who arrived in the US before the Holocaust. Making Aliyah in 1993, she is retired and now lives in the center of the country with her husband.

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