American Jews and the Law of Return
Any person with at least one Jewish grandparent is eligible to immigrate under Israel's Law of Return. Such an immigrant is granted citizenship immediately upon arriving in Israel and is also given a full assortment of benefits in order to ease their absorption into this country. As long as the immigrant has not formally adopted another religion, immigration under the Law of Return may proceed even if the person is not halachically Jewish (i.e., according to Jewish Law--born to a Jewish mother). For this reason, some Jewish communal professionals around the world speak of "zaka'ei shvut" (literally: "eligible for Return") rather than "halachic Jews" when they refer to the Jewish community of a particular region. They figure that anyone to whom the Jewish State is willing to grant automatic citizenship is worthy of their outreach work concerning Judaism, and Jewish and Israeli culture. Oddly enough, there is one huge Jewish community that is not approached this way: the United States of America.
I have never heard or read about the "zaka'ei shvut" of the United States. In dealing with the issue of assimilation, Jewish communal professionals limit the scope of their efforts to two generations: young Jewish adults and their spouses (Jewish or not), and the offspring of these unions. Elsewhere in the world, the scope is double this. Why? Because the "zakaei shvut" framework is in reality a four-generation framework, since Israeli law does not expect a person to leave their small children behind in their native country when they make aliyah. What this means is that a ten-year-old child neither of whose parents is Jewish, with four non-Jewish grandparents but a single Jewish great-grandparent, will be given automatic citizenship if and when the child makes aliyah with the parent who is the grandchild of that Jewish person. Around the world such children are perceived by Jewish communal professionals as legitimate outreach targets. Efforts are expended to get these children (and, where appropriate, their parents) into various Jewish frameworks (formal and informal educational opportunities; Shabbat, Jewish holiday, and Israeli celebrations, etc.). Such work with the great-grandchildren and even the grandchildren of Jews is not typically done in the United States of America.
Just think of the city in which you live. Think about the potential for Jewish life if any child with a single Jewish great-grandparent or any adult with one Jewish grandparent was considered to be part of the Jewish family (as indeed the State of Israel does consider them). But, you ask: Why bother with people whose grandparents or even great-grandparents married out of the Jewish people? Doesn't American Jewish society have its hands full in promoting endogamy and in reaching out to intermarrieds and their children? The easy answer to this question is to argue for fairness and consistency. Why should the Jewish community send the great-grandchild of a Jewish person in the Ukraine to a free 10-day Jewish camp and not offer a similar experience to the great-grandchild of a Jewish person in the United States? But a better reason here is to say that the Jewish people has a lot to offer to a person. Indeed, there are those who argue that American Jews should make more of an effort to share their faith and morality with their non-Jewish neighbors—how much more is the case with people who are eligible for immediate, full citizenship in Israel.
When I spoke about this matter to a Jewish communal professional friend of mine he told me: "Just give it some time. In 10 years or so, American Jews will be talking about their 'zaka'ei shvut.'" Perhaps he's right. But I'm writing this column because of all those kids in America, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Jews, whom I think could benefit right now from Judaism in its various dimensions. Surely outreach is not a bad idea for what Israel would consider to be inreach?
Copyright 2008, Teddy Weinberger