REHOVOT, ISRAEL -- "Hello, my name is David," said the smiling, black-bearded yeshiva student to the group of new immigrants assembled in a classroom here one recent morning. "We're going to cover 2,000 years of Jewish history in 10 minutes."
Actually, it took three hours.
The immigrants listened intently while their religious instructor, recruited by the quasi-governmental Jewish Agency, explained the meanings and practices of major Jewish holidays, beginning with the simplest facts. "Four thousand, two hundred years ago," David recited, "a man called Abraham was born."
The brush-up seminar was one of thousands carried out in Israeli schools, community centers and even the army before the annual high holy day season, which begins this evening with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.
For most Israelis, the yearly review is routine. But for the tens of thousands of Soviet immigrants who have poured into the country in the last year and who are experiencing their first high holidays in the biblical Land of Israel, the state-sponsored instruction is opening a window on both a lost religious tradition and the sometimes conflicted spiritual streak that has appeared in Israeli society.
"We have to show the immigrants that the place they came to is not just a new country, but a Jewish place that will give them things they didn't have before," said Yossi Harel, the chief of the Jewish Agency's Division of Jewish Tradition. "I would like them to know what the New Year means for the Jewish people. I want them to understand the meaning of blowing a shofar," the ram's horn used in Rosh Hashanah services.
Of the nearly 100,000 Soviets who have arrived in Israel so far this year, only a handful are practicing Jews and many have virtually no knowledge of religious tradition.
Most of the Soviets say they came to Israel to escape antisemitism and seek a better life in a Jewish homeland. But many Israeli leaders worry that that motivation is not enough. Unless the immigrants are exposed to Jewish religious practice and develop an attachment to Israel in a spiritual as well as practical sense, they argue, they will not remain in the country.
"The Russians arrive here and they soon see that it's no paradise," said David Shahen, the yeshiva student who was one of the pre-holiday instructors here. "And as Jews, they know nothing. We have to give them something, because to stay here you have to understand what Judaism is about, why Jews are here and what it really means to have a Jewish state."
The teaching campaign is part of what Israelis have begun to call the "spiritual absorption" of the arriving Soviets. Despite the deep tensions between the country's secular and religious communities, few Israelis appear to object to the state-sponsored initiative. Still, spiritual absorption poses a contentious dilemma for Israelis: What, exactly, will the Soviets be told about Jewish tradition, and who will do the telling? Will it be liberal Zionists who portray Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur as predominantly national holidays, or ultra-Orthodox rabbis who seek their conversion to a fundamentalist movement hostile to Israeli secular statehood?
For now, almost by default, it is largely Orthodox Jews who dominate the introductions, monopolizing the work in that field of the government and the Jewish Agency. The government Absorption Ministry is itself headed by an ultra-Orthodox rabbi, Yitzhak Peretz, from the small Shas Party.
At the seminars organized by the Jewish Agency, lectures by Orthodox rabbis were followed by a bus trip to Kfar Habad, the settlement of the ultra-Orthodox Lubavitcher Hassidic movement, which opposes secular Zionism.
Liberal Jewish leaders resent the Orthodox hold on programs and the message they communicate to the Soviets. "What bothers me is that these people are going to come away and think that, unless I have the beard and the ritual garments, I am not going to be able to celebrate the Sabbath," said David Clayman, a Conservative rabbi who heads the American Jewish Congress office in Israel. "It's ironic," he said, "because in a way what the Soviets are looking for is what the more liberal movements are offering, a Judaism that allows you to live in the modern world. But a lot of them aren't hearing about it."
So far all of the proselytizing appears to have had little impact on the immigrants, who in opinion polls pronounce themselves secular by margins of 8 and 9 to 1.
Still, many of them clearly sense that, in order to find a place in the Jewish state, they must follow the forms of religious practice. Thousands of adult male immigrants have undergone circumcision, and many families sent their children to summer camps sponsored by religious organizations. At Kfar Habad last week, hundreds of immigrants happily danced in sex-segregated circles to the Hassidic strains of a Lubavitcher band, seemingly oblivious to both the movement's fundamentalist views and the odium they provoke among some secular Israelis.
Many of those who came here last week said they felt an obligation to learn. "I myself am not religious, but I want to know everything and I want my son to know everything," said Ella Erlich, 28, a nurse from the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius. "If you are going to live in Israel, it's very important that you should know these things. And it interests me, because I'm Jewish."