Karaites keep their faith, and distance, from other Jews in Israel

ashdod | They have been branded as one of the worst enemies of the Jewish people.

They have attacked the authority of the rabbis and claimed the Talmud is full of falsehoods, and were allied with some of the cruelest adversaries of the Jews, including the czars and Nazi leaders.

Yet today the Karaites — members of a Jewish offshoot that denies the talmudic-rabbinic tradition — are flourishing in Israel. In fact, some members suggest that the community is experiencing a rare high point in its 1,300-year history.

Mainly concentrated in the cities of Ashdod and Ramla, Israel’s Karaite community is about 30,000 strong. There are about 5,000 Karaites elsewhere in the world, mainly in the United States.

In Israel today, they have an imposing synagogue and cultural community center in Ashdod that adheres to their particular traditions.

The synagogue’s interior looks much like a mosque, and Karaites remove their shoes before entering the prayer hall, which is an empty space with no seating.

In Israel, the Karaite community has been able to grow, thanks to the relaxation of an ancient Karaite law that prohibited “mixed” marriages with Jews, whom they call “rabbinic Jews.”

“I myself allow marriages with rabbinical Jews, but only after checking that there are no incestuous cases in their families,” says Rabbi Haim Levi, the white-bearded man at the head of the Karaite Court of Justice.

Jews and Karaites have not always gotten along. Each community sees itself as the true carrier of the Jewish tradition and the other as an aberration, and religious differences between the two historically have been treated as an internal Jewish issue.

But in 1948, Karaites — who had flourished in the Middle Ages under Muslim rule — suffered the same persecution in Arab countries as local Jews, and the Karaites fleeing Arab countries were welcomed by Israel’s young government.

From the early days of the state, however, Israeli rabbinic authorities have kept a distance from the Karaite sect. Rules were set in place that legislated that Karaite butchers had to advertise on their storefronts that their meat was “kosher for Karaites,” and Karaite courts of justice were not recognized by successive Israeli governments.

When a “mixed marriage” takes place between a Karaite and a mainstream Jew, says Professor Yaakov Geller of Bar-Ilan University, the Israeli Chief Rabbinate insists that the Karaite discontinue his or her traditions as a condition of marriage.

“There are some cases of Karaites who fall in love with a Jewish partner, but the rabbinical courts demand that the former abandon their customs,” Geller says. “The Karaites do not favor this type of marriage, and the Jews do even less.”

Says Levi, “Enlightened people don’t hate us, but the rest don’t like us very much.”

Despite their status in Israel, the Karaite community is growing in the Jewish state.

“Most of our community is secular; just a few are orthodox observers,” says Jack Levi, 58, a supermarket manager who describes himself as somewhat observant.

His son, Mark, 16, was recently chosen to be the chazzan, or cantor, at the Karaite synagogue in Ashdod.

Mark studies in an Israeli public school because there is no Karaite school in town. He says he does not hide his religion from his peers, and as a consequence does not always have an easy time of it.

“Those who have never heard about us don’t bother about it,” Mark says. “But the reaction of other people is sometimes negative. There are rumors about us.”