In recent days, I returned from a highly emotional visit to sites of Jewish history across Ukraine. The purpose of the mission, which I shared with friends of Tzohar, together with Rabbi Meir Soloveitchik and Rachaeli Fraenkel, was to highlight our work to verify the Jewish identities of immigrants to Israel. Those immigrants, some 800,000 people who have arrived in Israel over the past three decades, require their Jewish lineage to be proven to be accepted as legal Jews by the Rabbinate according to Israeli law – a service we provide through the Shorashim (Roots) program.
We explored that issue in depth and were exposed to the challenges faced by all too many of these immigrants.
For the most part, these are citizens who are Jews in every sense of halacha. These are men and women who are contributing to the growth of our nation, fighting and even dying for their new country. Yet, their very identities are being denied to them and it has become our mission to ensuring that those identities are recovered. Restoring those identities often requires traveling deep into the archives of tiny villages in the former Soviet Union and using all types of forensic and investigative means to find Jewish roots. To date we have succeeded in proving the identities of 50,000 Jews and our work continues round the clock.
But in the cities and villages of Ukraine, places that some might think were long ago forgotten, we also discovered the continued need to ensure that every single Jew must not be forgotten and that we need to reinvigorate our efforts to bring them home to Eretz Yisrael.
Ukraine is often a sort of “footnote” in Holocaust education. We all know the names Auschwitz and Majdanek and the bitter histories of places like Warsaw and Krakow. And of course we should. But the stories of the Jews of Kiev and the tiny shtetels across the Ukrainian landscape are no less tragic. And for those Jews who did survive the Nazis, the communist era did not really give birth to much freedom for the Jewish communities.
The messages of these places are therefore both of tragedy and purpose.
The tragedy is the immense loss that they represent. Of the crumbling cemeteries and largely abandoned batei midrashot (study houses.) But for these places it would be ignorant to think that their demise began in 1917 or 1939.
Their destruction was set in place far before – with the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash and the expulsion of the Jews to all corners of the earth- banned from the one place where we deserve to feel at home.
And yet, out of these very sites was born the modern Zionist movement. Figures like Chaim Nachman Bialik, Golda Meir and Rav Kook found their love for Eretz Yisrael out of the recognition that life in the Diaspora was fleeting for Jews and that the time had come to head home.
I fully realize that the opportunity to live in Israel and have the right raise families in the modern, sovereign state of the Jewish people is a blessing in every sense. I also know that the choice to come home is not an easy one and that there are millions of people who don’t embrace that choice who are fully entitled to that right, as it is not our place to judge them.
Yet at the same time, the horrors that lie in the villages and courtyards of Ukraine teach us that we have a historical responsibility to invest whatever we can in providing our Jewish people with whatever is needed to create a more united nation. And part of that unity is reaching out to those who want to come home to be embraced as Jews and giving them that ability.
Just days before Tisha B’Av, the day commemorating our national tragedies, I stood at Babi Yar and restated that which must be the modern commitment of us as a Jewish people. It is our responsibility to say both to those who have been lost and those who still are waiting to be found that here in Eretz Yisrael they have a home and they have a family to welcome them.
Only then will we be able to say that we are remembering their sacrifices and ensuring that we are together working to build a nation for all of our people.