Rabbi Mordechai Cooperman, a veteran mohel, has seen more than his share of “unusual” circumcisions. But when Yad L’Achim, the antimissionary organization, sent him to an address in Rishon Letzion to circumcize the baby of a mother it had saved from the “Messianic Jews” cult, he was shocked to discover that the family’s home was actually a bus.
Though it is, thank-G-d, exceptional to find immigrant families living in buses, it is certainly not unusual to find immigrants in dire economic need, and this complicates the work of Yad L’Achim in trying to protect new immigrants from missionaries. This is because the missionaries have warehouses filled with food, bedding, clothing and school supplies that they are more than willing to distribute - with strings attached.
In this case, Yad L’Achim first broke the stranglehold the missionaries had on the mother of the family, Yvgenya, then enrolled her nine-year-old daughter in the Shuvu religious school in their hometown of Rishon Letzion, and then went to work trying to get the family government and other assistance.
We caught up with Frieda, one of Yad L’Achim’s caseworkers, on a bus in Rishon Letzion, after she’d spent the day with Yvgenya at the Absorption Ministry, trying to get her some additional assistance, and at the bank, trying to get the manager to extend a bit of credit. “She doesn’t speak Hebrew, so I have to go with her from office to office and translate,” says Frieda. “I went with her and a social worker from the Social Affairs Agency to the Absorption Ministry. They can give her NIS 1,000, as a one-time thing. The Housing Ministry can’t help until she’s here a year. We’re going back to the Absorption Ministry on Sunday to see what can be done.”
Isn’t it exhausting and time-consuming to battle the Israeli bureaucracy on Yvgenya’s behalf? “There’s no choice,” shrugs Frieda, who speaks with pride of the progress the family is making Jewishly: The nine-year-old in a religious school, a two-year-old who was recently circumcised, and, of course, the circumcision of their newest son.
To appreciate how significant these steps are, it is important to understand where Yvgenya was when Frieda first discovered her six months ago. The story is startling to those who don’t understand how entrenched missionaries are in the immigrant community, but sadly, it is all too common.
“We got information that missionary classes were being held in an apartment on Baron Hirsch Street in Rishon Letzion, so we turned to the tenants of the building and tried to convince them to evict them,” recalls Frieda. “But the neighbors didn’t care.”
Accompanied by Aryeh, another Yad L’Achim caseworker, she boldly knocked on the door and, to her shock, saw 25 elderly women being lectured on Christian writings and beliefs.
“I said, ‘I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to disturb the birthday party,’ and we made our way in. We then said that if anyone had adjustment problems we could help. The owner of the apartment, Ludmilla, said she had a problem and asked to talk to me in a side room. Meanwhile, a miracle happened. Aryeh is tall and impressive-looking and they asked him to speak; so he told over Torah stories!”
Ludmilla had lost birth certificates and other important documents and couldn’t get an ID card from the Interior Ministry. In the course of their conversation, Frieda learned that Ludmilla’s daughter, Yvgenya, had gotten involved with the missionaries.
“The irony is that neither Ludmilla nor her mother Rosa had ever stepped foot in a church in Russia, and yet in Israel they were attending church,” says Frieda.
Frieda helped the family overcome the bureaucratic hurdles toward an ID card – and the absorption “basket of benefits” that comes with it – and slowly earned their trust. She began speaking to them about their Judaism, and slowly the message began sinking in. At first, they would insist that they needed to talk to their pastor, but Frieda would say, “What’s the matter, can’t you think for yourselves?”
Pulling Yvgenya away from Christianity wasn’t easy. At her Hebrew-language ulpan, for instance, there were only four Jews, and the rest of the class was gentile. Both Jews and non-Jews searched out churches because in Russia the churches offered assistance.
A major breakthrough for Yvgenya came when she agreed to enroll her daughter in a Shuvu school. “The child was admitted to fourth grade, but didn’t even have the knowledge of a third grader,” says Frieda. “She didn’t know Hebrew. We got her tutors, in math as well, and now she’s doing very well.”
Yvgenya understood that she had to have her two-year-old son circumcised and, of course, turned to Frieda and Yad L’Achim to arrange it.
For a time, Yvgenya lived with her mother, but she eventually had to find a place of her own. With her husband, a factory worker, earning less than NIS 3,500 (around $700) a month, they didn’t have many options. They settled on a bus that offered a tiny kitchen and two small bedrooms. Rent for this “find” – including phone and utilities – was $350.
Yad L’Achim made all the arrangements for the bris, and offered to host the event in a hall, but Yvgenya insisted that it be held in their home.
For Frieda, the ceremony was particularly moving, considering that Yvgenya was just a short while ago on her way to abandoning her religion. But seeing the conditions in which she lives was eye-opening even for Frieda and Yad L’Achim.
“This is part of our struggle,” explains Yad L’Achim’s founding chairman Harav Sholom Dov Lipschitz. “It isn’t enough to bring them back to Judaism. We have to make sure they have the basic necessities. You can’t have a Jewish home unless you first start with a home and all the basics that a family needs.”