"Turn around your eyes and see that all have been brought together and returned to you .Your sons will come from afar and your daughters will nurse beside you"

Indian Jews fight for recognition -Again


ISRAEL'S TOP ONLINE NEWS SOURCE Tuesday, December 9, 1997 10 Kislev 5758 ISRAEL TIME: ISRAEL TIME: Indian Jews fight for recognition - again By ALISON KAPLAN SOMMER (November 11) - The dispute over the Jewishness of the B'nai Israel of India was settled decades ago - or so members of the community thought. But a Petah Tikva rabbi is refusing to register their marriages. When Orly Solomon dreamed about the week before her wedding, she imagined herself tending to the last-minute details: making sure her dress is perfect, the hall is prepared, and that the flowers will be in the right place when she stands under the wedding canopy. But instead of focusing on her wedding to Ra'anan Wald, scheduled to take place on Thursday, Solomon has been spending her time arguing with rabbis and clerks, and being interviewed by the media, after being caught unexpectedly in the center of a controversy over the legitimacy of her Judaism. "It's supposed to be the most wonderful time of my life, and instead, it's been the most stressful," she says. "I never imagined in my wildest dreams that I would have to fight for my wedding." Solomon is the daughter of parents who are members of B'nai Israel, who came to Israel from the Jewish communities of New Delhi and Bombay in the 1960s. Last week, on Sunday, she was informed that Baruch Shimon Solomon, the Ashkenazi chief rabbi in Petah Tikva, had issued an interpretation of Jewish law which cast doubt on whether the Indian immigrants and their children were truly Jewish, and ordered the clerks in the marriage bureau offices to refuse to deal with the cases. To those who protested the policy, he explained that he would only validate their marriages if they underwent a ritual immersion for conversion purposes to assure him of their Jewishness. Orly Solomon, who grew up in Israel, came from a traditional family, served in the army and had carried around identity cards declaring her Jewishness her entire life, was horrified. Solomon, like two other Petah Tikva women, Shula and Simha Tsriker, who experienced the identical problem the same month, flatly refused to undergo the conversion. So for several long days last week, pressure was applied on the Petah Tikva chief rabbi through rabbinical consultations, pleas by the family to politicians, and public appeals. While that was happening Solomon considered her alternatives: find another municipality which would agree to register her and her fiancˇ and keep her plans for an Orthodox service, be married by a Reform or Conservative rabbi or get married in a civil ceremony in another country. Canceling the wedding, set for this Thursday, was out of the question. "We have guests coming from England, from the United States, from India," she says. "It was impossible to postpone it." Why did Rabbi Solomon make the decision to refuse to marry those of Indian descent? He has refused to comment publicly throughout the affair, and would not answer The Jerusalem Post's requests for a response. He reportedly told one of the Tsriker sisters that it was because of the case of one person of Indian descent who came to register. There were doubts about the Jewishness of that individual's mother. In the rabbi's opinion, this threw the Jewishness of the entire community into question. It was then that he declared that neither he nor his subordinates in the Petah Tikva rabbinate would deal with those of Indian descent. In the 1950s and 1960s there was considerable controversy in rabbinic circles over the Jewishness of Indian Jews when they first immigrated to Israel. Their history was undisputed - historic synagogues stand in India - but the expertise of their rabbis in family matters was questioned, and some rabbis demanded that they undergo conversions. After a series of protests and sit-down strikes, former Sephardic chief rabbi Ovadia Yosef investigated the question and issued what has been considered a definitive interpretation of Jewish law which upholds the legitimacy of Indian Jewry. The Petah Tikva decision shocked and saddened members of the B'nai Israel community in general, and none more than the parents of the young people who were not able to register. "In 1969 I left India, where I and my wife had excellent jobs and a promising future, so that my children could grow up in Israel, have a Jewish education and a Jewish life," says Gedalia Solomon, Orly's father. "We came here for their sake. I served in the army, did my reserve service, and built my life. And now, to have to watch my daughter go through this breaks my heart and has made me sick. How dare our Jewishness be questioned by some fanatic? My great-grandfather was a rabbi in Poona, a city near Bombay. "I understand the rabbi's concern if he found one Indian Jew who raised questions, but that is not a reason to blacken an entire community." Instead of preparing for the wedding, he said that his home had been turned into "a battlefield" over the past week, and that members of his family have been busy with phone calls and faxes to government offices, rabbis, and the media. Pnina Tsriker, 46, the mother of Simha, who is set to marry on December 2, said she was hurt and insulted at what had happened to her daughter. "It is not right, and it is not fair," she said. "We have three sons who were married without any problems or questions. How dare they question our Jewishness?" Rabbi David Raz of Beersheba, a respected rabbi from the Indian community, played a key role in mediating Orly Solomon's case, and, in the end, succeeded in getting her registered to marry under Petah Tikva auspices. Raz says that he has received an assurance from Sephardi Chief Rabbi Bakshi-Doron and Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yisrael Lau, that the rabbinate in Petah Tikva and Rabbi Solomon have been instructed to process the applications of Indian immigrants in matters of marriage. "If he refuses to follow the policies of the Chief Rabbinate, Rabbi Solomon must either tender his resignation or be moved to another position," Raz says. Raz says that although it has been many years since the issue was was a source of public controversy, he was not entirely surprised that it had surfaced again. "We have more tools to fight now. Back then we were newcomers, now we have lawyers, judges, army officers in our community." There are also young political activists in the Indian community. One is David Naveh, a member of The Third Way party, who transformed his Tel Aviv home into a coordinating center for the Petah Tikva struggle. Naveh sees the case as a turning point in consciousness-raising for Indian Jews. "The generation that came to Israel from India were a patient, gentle, polite, agreeable people who tried to get along and did not like to be involved in controversy. We, the younger generation of sabras, are not afraid of confronting the establishment and fighting for what is right." Originally, he said, the leaders of the Indian community in Petah Tikva had looked for ways to get around the problem, such as registering the marriage in neighboring Rosh Ha'ayin, as the Tsriker cousins chose to do. "I asked them: 'Haven't you been paying taxes in Petah Tikva for years?" said Naveh. "Isn't that where you live? You shouldn't go to Rosh Ha'ayin, Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. The next thing you know they are going to tell us to go back to India to get married. We serve in this country's army and we have rights." Neither Naveh nor Orly Solomon herself is completely satisfied by the resolution to the problem. Although Orly and others of Indian descent will be permitted to register in Petah Tikva, their marriage certificates will be signed by a chief rabbi of another city, most likely Rosh Ha'ayin. "I think it is awful and leaves a bad taste in my mouth. It is obvious that Rabbi Solomon still believes that Indian Jews are not Jewish. This man holds a public position, and he is blatantly prejudiced," Solomon says. "Something must be done." She says that after her wedding, she wants to be involved in efforts that Naveh and others are organizing to demand an apology from Rabbi Solomon and press him to either agree to sign the marriage certificates of Indian Jews or resign. "We are even considering suing him for insulting our entire community," she said. Naveh adds that Indian Jews are determined to "fight for our rights in every non-violent, legal means that we can find. We are going to resolve this issue and fight any prejudice that still exists against us, not only in Petah Tikva, but in the whole country."