Let my people in

Heading to the U.S., Alex Rif of the One Million Lobby looks to tell Russian-speaking Israelis’ story

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, efforts to change Law of Return thrust the organization into the spotlight over the past year

When Alex Rif spoke onstage at the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly last month, she appeared with a sign, urging in all capital letters: “LET MY PEOPLE IN.”

The message, written in English, was an homage to and an inversion of the American Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry’s slogan, “Let my people go.”

A poet and serial social entrepreneur, Rif is the founder and CEO of Israel’s “One Million Lobby,” which advocates for the country’s roughly Russian-speaking population. She created the organization in late 2020, with the stated goal of working toward “a better social, economic, and cultural reality for the 1.2 million Russian-speaking Israelis.” Her organization has grown in prominence over the past year, driven by two major developments: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the still simmering but largely stalled debate over Israel’s Law of Return, which determines who is eligible for Israeli citizenship, specifically the plans to annul the so-called “grandchild clause,” which allows anyone with at least one Jewish grandparent to make aliyah.

Bringing the sign was a last-minute decision. Printed just a few hours before the event, it was meant to raise awareness about what Rif sees as the government’s efforts to stymie immigration from the former Soviet Union.

Later this month, Rif will travel to the United States with a group organized by the Israeli NGO Gesher, which encourages dialogue both within Israeli society and between Israel and the Diaspora. The trip will be funded in part by Israel’s Diaspora Affairs Ministry. During the visit, Rif and the other participants will meet with representatives from the American Jewish community in New York and Washington.

According to Rif, a graduate of the Mandel Leadership Program in Jewish Culture, the majority of the One Million Lobby’s funding comes from North American Jewish federations – particularly UJA-Federation of New York – as well as American Jewish foundations and Russian-speaking American Jews, while a smaller amount comes from Israeli donations. 

Ahead of her trip, Rif spoke with eJewishPhilanthropy about her organization’s work, its successes and challenges.

Rif, who was born in Ukraine and immigrated to Israel with her family in the early 1990s, has emerged as a somewhat curious figure in Israeli politics, bringing a degree of nuance that generally does not conform to the kind of partisanship that Israel has seen in recent years.

Her organization is one of the few in Israel that performs research on the country’s Russian-speaking population, sometimes leading to findings that run counter to prevailing narratives. For instance, a One Million Lobby study found that 45% of the approximately 500,000 Israelis of “no religion,” those who immigrated under the Law of Return but are not Jewish according to halacha, would undergo an Orthodox conversion to Judaism provided the process were made more “respectful.” This appeared to refute the claim that they are simply not interested in conversion.

The One Million Lobby, therefore, focuses considerable effort on reforming the government’s conversion authority to better take into account the particularities and sensitivities of the Russian-speaking Israeli community, without watering down the conversion process. The organization also advocates for new immigrants from Russia and Ukraine, as well as for continued aliyah from the former Soviet Union, specifically by opposing efforts to officially and unofficially change the Law of Return. In addition, it works to support the thousands of Russian-speaking Holocaust survivors in Israel, many of whom do not receive the level of support as non-Russian-speaking survivors, and the One Million Lobby is also heavily involved in efforts to create a museum dedicated to the heritage of Russian-speaking Jewry and to better teach the history of the Jews from the former Soviet Union in Israeli schools.

“There is not sufficient research into our community and there are not enough places that teach our very complex story, which is an enormous part of the Jewish people — the Jews of the former Soviet Union,” Rif said. “We are in close connection with government offices to change this, but changing public discourse is difficult work.”

In general, she said, her goal is to ensure that Russian-speaking Israelis are involved in the discussions about issues that will directly affect them, particularly matters of religion and state. Rif told eJP that her motto on these issues is: “Nothing about us without us.”

Rif is highly critical of the government’s policies toward the 85,000 new immigrants from Russia and Ukraine who have arrived in Israel since Moscow launched its invasion. This includes recently announced plans to end a fast-track immigration process that has been in place since the start of the war; the government’s unwillingness to rapidly address the critical shortage of Hebrew language teachers in the country; and the cancellation of a special stipend for new immigrants from Russia and Ukraine. (For its part, the Immigration and Absorption Ministry maintains that the emergency fast-track process is no longer needed and requires too many resources; that the Hebrew language instructor shortage is being dealt with, though admittedly slowly; and that the stipends are no longer necessary.)

While many of these efforts put Rif and her organization in opposition to the current government, she nevertheless succeeds in engaging directly with coalition Knesset members and ministers, and sometimes even convinces them to join her side on an issue.

This is particularly true in the area of conversion reform, where several MKs and ministers, as well as leading rabbis, have agreed, in principle, for the types of adjustments that the One Million Lobby advocates for. 

Rif has also had some success on the issue of the Law of Return, which has largely faded from public discourse. 

“We haven’t had [politicians] willing to say, ‘I was wrong,’ but they are willing to take it off the table,” Rif told eJP.

At a One Million Lobby event in January, members of the coalition acknowledged that the topic was more complicated than they had initially thought and said that while changes to the Law of Return may come, they were not going to happen imminently.

However, Rif said that while the legislative aspect of altering the Law of Return was currently stalled, she described the government’s policies toward immigrants from the former Soviet Union as representing a “de facto cancellation of the grandchild clause.”

Yet Rif also sometimes finds herself at odds with the opposition, particularly on matters of religion and state. When Rif met with Labor party leader Merav Michaeli to speak with her about the upcoming election for Israel’s chief rabbis – an area of particular interest to the One Million Lobby because of Russian-speaking Israelis’ often fraught relationship with the rabbinate – Michaeli said that she would take on the issue as part of a bill that she was advancing that would end the institution of the Chief Rabbinate.

“I told her, Russian-speaking Israelis don’t want to cancel the rabbinate, that’s like canceling the Jewishness [of Israel],” Rif told eJP. “They just want the Rabbinate to be more open and accepting. We’re not saying we need to fight the Rabbinate burn it down.”

Rif, who was heading into back-to-back committee hearings at the Knesset, said that while the issue of religion and state is acutely relevant for Russian-speaking Israelis, who are often viewed suspiciously by Israeli religious authorities and sometimes forced to undergo painstaking “clarification of Jewishness” checks before they can marry, it is also an area that donors are loath to get involved with.

“This is an area that’s so, so important. But it’s also a topic that’s the hardest to raise money for. There’s a fear to touch it. It’s very political. The issue of ‘religion and state’ is at the center of the partisan conflict in Israel,” Rif said.