The Olympics is a time to get excited for our home country, a time when we cheer for the athletes from our home country to win medals. As an American Jew, I get excited when Americans win medals and I also get excited when Israelis win medals. Artem Dolgopyat, the Israeli gymnastic gold medalist, is only the second person ever to win a gold medal for Israel. But, of course, nothing is ever simple with our beloved Jewish state. And that is because Artem Dolgopyat is not Jewish. That being said, my feelings about this reality have evolved over the years.
In the summer of 1991, I was a counselor for Jewish camps in the former Soviet Union as part of an organization called Y.U.S.S.R., standing for Yeshiva and University Students for the Spiritual Revival of Soviet Jewry. In July of that year, we ran a summer camp in Vilnius, Lithuania, and in August, we ran a summer camp in Tallinn, Estonia. For the most part, the kids that attended these camps attended the local Jewish school. However, there was a significant difference between the makeup of the campers in both camps. In Vilnius, the kids in the Jewish school all were halachically Jewish, but in Tallinn, many of the kids in the Jewish school were not halachically Jewish because the school accepted children even if one parent was Jewish.
I remember about halfway through the camp session in Tallinn discovering that half of the children whom we were inspiring and to whom we were teaching Torah were not even Jewish and I remember how uncomfortable we felt after this discovery. We were exerting so much effort to engage in outreach to so many children who were not even Jewish. We then were introduced to the concept of “zera Yisrael,” the fact that there may be some religious status to children who were not halachically Jewish but had a Jewish father and there may be some value in teaching them about their Jewish heritage. In fact, former Sephardic Chief Rabbi Uziel concluded based on earlier halachic sources that a Jewish intermarried father may have a responsibility to convert his non-Jewish child. Nevertheless, the idea of religiously inspiring non-Jewish children at a Jewish camp left me and, I believe, others very uncomfortable.
About thirty years later, I have come to accept the reality of many individuals who identify as Jews but are not halachically Jewish. Many members of non-orthodox synagogues are not halachically Jewish either because these synagogues accepted the definition of Jewishness as someone having either a Jewish father or mother, someone who converted to Judaism by a non-orthodox Jewish court, or a non-Jew who is married to a Jew. Additionally, many Russian olim in Israel are not halachically Jewish even though they automatically are entitled to Israeli citizenship according to Israel’s Law of Return. Personal status issues in Israel like marriage and divorce are controlled by the Rabbinate. The Rabbinate only will authorize marriages between Jews and no provisions exist for civil marriage. As such, Artem Dolgopyat, Israeli gold medal winner who was entitled to automatic citizenship in the Jewish state according to the Law of Return, cannot marry his fiancée in Israel because he is not halachically Jewish.
Should civil marriage be introduced in Israel to deal with this unfortunate situation that Artem faces? Are we concerned that the introduction of civil marriage in Israel will eventually lead to the introduction of civil divorce in Israel, thereby increasing the likelihood of Jews getting married according to halacha but not getting halachically divorced which ultimately will result in more cases of mamzerut?
Should we provide Artem with an easier path to conversion? It is true that people like Artem have sacrificed their lives for the State of Israel as members of the IDF and have thrown their lot with the Jewish nation, but if the accepted halachic standard for conversion is acceptance to observe basic mitzvot like Shabbat and Kashrut, how can we convert someone that doesn’t meet those halachic requirements?
There is no simple solution to the civil marriage question and the conversion question to deal with people like Artem Dolgopyat. At the same time, when he wins a gold medal for Israel, I will celebrate his accomplishment as a citizen of our Jewish state and I will explain why. We live in an unredeemed world and in an unredeemed world there is much confusion. There is much confusion because definitions of identity have become subjective instead of objective and often result from self-definition. Additionally, we live in a world where we have a lot of enemies and we are searching for more friends and allies beyond our halachic family of Jews.
As such, if individuals who identify as Jews either in America or in Israel are not halachic Jews, my non-acceptance of them as Jews from a halachic standpoint does not preclude me from admiring them as good friends and allies of our people. Despite the halachic line that divides us, Artem is affiliated with our people and in an incredible way, he represents our nation. So, thank you, Artem Dolgopyat, and congratulations on your gold medal as a citizen of the Jewish state of Israel.