Rabbinic Court revokes Jewishness of 3-generation family

CWJ attorney Adiya Shvartz and Generation 1.5's Katya at the Supreme Court

Women know that when they walk into the rabbinic court for divorce proceedings, they run the risk of being refused a get, with the implicit or often explicit encouragement of the rabbinic court judges.

But women whose families came from the former Soviet Union run an additional risk: that the rabbinic court will revoke their Jewish identity, as well as those of their children and family members.

CWJ’s latest case: 30 years ago, Yulia* left the former Soviet Union and made aliyah to Israel. She met a man, got engaged, and went to register for marriage at the Rabbinate. Following a comprehensive “Jewishness investigation”--which even included phone calls to her mother in Yiddish--the Tiberius State Rabbinic Court declared that she was Jewish. They married, had two daughters and lived happily ever after. Almost.

The daughters, Anna* and Lena*, grew up and they, too, eventually registered for marriage at the Rabbinate. Both underwent Jewishness investigations and both were re-affirmed as Jewish.

In 2016, Anna found herself in the midst of an acrimonious divorce at the Ashdod Rabbinic Court. During one of the hearings, her husband yelled out, “She’s not Jewish!”

In a normal world, the rabbinic court would recognize the outburst for what it was: a baseless accusation by a vengeful husband with a vested interest in hurting his wife in a divorce hearing. But instead of throwing out his claim, or even asking him for any proof to back it up, the rabbinic court decided that this was sufficient reason to open yet another Jewishness investigation against her.

The fact that Anna, Lena and Yulia had already undergone--and passed!--Jewishness investigations by that same institution and had married through the rabbinate did not matter. The rabbinate regards all Jews of Russian descent with deep suspicion, “conditional Jews” whose identity may be revoked at any time. Guilty until proven innocent, and even once proven, never safe. 

The burden of proof was now on Anna to reclaim her Jewish heritage. She quickly found her mother’s old Soviet birth certificate and brought it to the court. Ever suspicious, the rabbinic court sent it to a forensics team to see if any problems would turn up. They found an erasure on the document and concluded that it must be a forgery. Anna had since found many additional documents that attested to her mother’s Jewishness, but it was too late. The rabbinic court refused to allow her to submit any additional documents to the file. They also refused to speak with the community rabbi in Ukraine, who tried in vain to corroborate the family’s Jewishness.

But it gets worse. Even though the rabbinic court only has jurisdiction to make decisions about people who are actual parties to the case before them--here, Anna and her husband, the parties to the divorce--the rabbinic court overreached and summoned Annan’s entire extended family to the court against their will. They opened Jewishness investigations against three generations: the mother, the sisters, children, nieces and nephews. In one fell swoop, the rabbinic court declared that the entire family was not Jewish and that all of their marriages were null.

Anna, Lena and Yulia turned to the Center for Women’s Justice. We submitted a petition to the Supreme Court, together with the organization Generation 1.5, which supports young Israelis of Russian descent. In the petition, we protest the injustice done to Anna and her entire family by the rabbinic court’s revocation of its own ruling from 30 years ago; we protest the rabbinic court’s cruel, prejudiced attitude toward Jews from the FSU; we protest the rabbinic court’s abuse of women, who are already disadvantaged and vulnerable to extortion during religious divorce without having to worry about their identity being erased as well; we protest the rabbinic court’s violation of basic justice; and we protest the rabbinic court’s corruption of halakha, which was never meant to be wielded as a weapon.

Enough is enough.

Read and listen to the Times of Israel’s interview with CWJ’s founder and director, Dr. Susan Weiss, about his absurd case and what it means for all of us.


*Names have been changed to protect their identity.