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25.04.2016

Shalom Norman: My mother always said that repatriation was akin to disability

The director of the Triguboff foundation in Israel discusses Jewish charity, problems with documents and ways of assessing the success of Aliyah

Tell us about the purpose of your visit to Ukraine.

First of all I would like to say that I am the representative of an Australian charitable foundation working in Israel. Our foundation helps people with legal issues, and we solve the problem of self-identification in this sphere.

We help people to receive the correct status when they arrive in the state of Israel. There are three channels through which people realize their right to repatriation. The first is the consul here, who gives permission to move, checking the status of the person according to the Law on return. Then comes the second channel, the Israeli Interior Ministry. The third body is the religious organizations which check the status of the repatriate from the religious standpoint.

We do not work with consulate checks or Interior Ministry documents, we only work with the third option – only with religious organizations. We build bridges between the past of people who are now moving to Israel, and their religious status in the new place, in the state. As over 70 years the Soviet Union did everything to stop people leading a normal Jewish life, both independently and personally, and in the community, now we are helping to restore a kind of justice. We don’t want these people to have problems of a religious nature in future. I will make sure that my grandchildren have the opportunity to enter into chuppah with the grandchildren of the people who are making Aliyah today.

The Israeli Ministry for Religious Affairs does practically nothing, they just deal in bureaucracy. But they also don’t have the capabilities that our foundation does.

By its existence, the USSR made it impossible to preserve any aspects of religious life. There are no authentic traces of community life left for this period. The moels who did circumcisions did not keep notes, and the people in the chuppah could not write a ketubah [a traditional agreement between the husband and wife during the wedding – editor’s note]. These documents do not exist.

From the Soviet period, only ketubahs that are not valid have been preserved.

The only place where they were written at that time was the Caucasus, and there it was even customary to write ketubahs when one of the newly-weds was not a Jew. The notes of the funeral bureau have also not been preserved…

Jews, even those who survived Shoah, practically never returned to the places of pre-war life, and so the documents were also lost here. Of 8 million people who feature in the lists of the Red Cross as evacuated, around two and a half million are Jews.

We try to help people, we have ways of achieving what we wish. We can access archives which are usually inaccessible, we carry out technical work and look into documents.

In the Soviet period, archives were kept in an ideal state, the documentation is of very high quality. Even documents on soldiers have been preserved in ideal condition in most cases. Furthermore, for each person there is not just a dossier, but documents indicating nationality, which greatly simplifies our work.

One of the goals of our visit is to look at possibilities for broadening our sphere of competence. In other words, we are thinking about how people who have made the decision for repatriation can have the opportunity to prepare their documents here, in Ukraine.

For example, a single mother repatriates to Israel with a six-year-old child. She is a Halakha Jew, but if she had goes to the rabbinate about moving, 20 years later this child could not prove anything. He will not have the ketubah of his parents, or any papers. The terrible thing is that the generation of the period of the Second World War is dying, they are decreasing in number, and they are the people who could have verbally confirmed that a certain person was a Jew.

We are expanding our resources, and opening an office in Dnepropetrovsk, so that new repatriates have ready documents and go prepared.

What is Harry Triguboff’s motivation? He is one of the richest people in Australia, he could help the Australian Jewish community, but he helps Jews from the former USSR in Israel…

Harry Triguboff is a Russian-speaking person, but he has never been to Russia. He was born in China, in Tianjin, where there was a large Jewish community. His mother was born in Siberia, and his father in Ukraine. It’s a real Jewish fairytale. He speaks Russian wonderfully, as well as my mother, who studied in Kharkov. Harry is completely inside the Russian-speaking culture. Additionally, Harry is a Jewish philanthropist, who lived in Israel in the 1950s. After Mao came to power, his family left China. Harry Triguboff understands the importance of continuing Jewish life.

I have been connected with him for many years in various building projects, he has built many non-residential properties in Israel, and he’s a major building contractor. Triguboff’s charitable foundation is perhaps his first project that has such a profound spiritual and charitable nature. He understands the importance of continuing spiritual Jewish life so deeply that he considers this project to be vital.

Does the Triguboff foundation not only provides help with documents, but also conducts educational activity?

We work on what you could call the person’s position in society, but we don’t work on education projects.

If we’re talking about giyur, we don’t work on this issue, although of course we have a certain connection to it. It’s important to note that in Ukraine we don’t work on giyur.

One and a half years ago we sponsored an enormous study which was carried out by Mr. Zeev Khanin. The results of this work gave Mr. Triguboff and me enormous motivation for further work and development of the foundation. We discovered that no matter what status repatriates come to Israel under (I mean Halakha Jews or non-Jews), these people do not join any other religious school or structure.

What can help a new repatriate to become integrated into Israeli society as quickly and correctly as possible?

My mother, who was born in Zhitomir, studied in Kharkov and fought in the Second World War, always said that repatriation was akin to disability. We repatriated in 1958. Why did she say that? Because you’ll never speak a foreign language like your native one. She was always very worried when she made mistakes in written texts in Hebrew. Thanks to her I speak a little Russian. She set herself the task back then for me to read Gogol and Pushkin in the original.

You can’t calculate or see the success of repatriation by the first generation of repatriates, the success is visible from the following generations.

It’s incredible that nowadays to find that you are a Jew is a pleasant discovery, for almost the first time in all human history. People look for their Jewish roots, and try very hard to find them. Several decades ago, in September 1941, to feel that you were a Jew meant ending your life in Ponary or Babi Yar.

When we talk about repatriation, we shouldn’t think about how successfully the present generation becomes integrated into the life of the country – we should talk about their grandchildren and children. After perestroika, around 1 million people became part of the population of Israel. The difficulties of this generation are the success of subsequent generations.

Why did your foundation decide to work with religious Zionists?

We work with people with whom we believe we will have the most productive results. If there are other proposals, we will be glad.

We work with different Jewish organizations and see the Jewish people as one. We don’t make any distinctions – neither political nor religious. If we have proved the Jewishness of a person who has not gone to Israel, that is also a good thing, as according to these documents his brother, son and grandson can go there. This is all very important.

Quite a large percentage of the citizens of Israel try to move away from religion completely, which is rather at odds with the status of the Jewish state. At the same time, the rabbinate sometimes really does overdo things. How can tension in society be reduced?

Our reality is a complex one, that’s true. There are religious people who go to extremes.

You can compare the situation in the country with the distance between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, it’s just 56 kilometers, but on the spiritual level the distance between these cities is enormous, and is not limited to kilometers. A situation when religion interferes in the affairs of the state will never be constructive.

What I would do personally, and what will certainly never happen, is to separate religion from the state completely, for me the interference of religion in politics is catastrophic. But I understand that there is very little chance that this will happen.

Evidently, we must simply reconcile ourselves with this situation. There is secular society and religious society, there will always be certain tension between them and a conflict, and this probably needs to be accepted as a matter of course.

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