Andrew Sacks
Rabbi Andy Sacks Directs the Rabbinical Assembly in Israel

Israel’s Interior Ministry – The Big Runaround

Over the past years I have written of the struggle of the Abayudaya Jewish community in Uganda to achieve the recognition that would allow members of the community to have the right to study in Israel and the right to make Aliyah.

The Abayudaya have been practicing Judaism since 1919 and many hundreds have gone through conversion since 2002 with recognized Batei Din.

The Interior Ministry of Israel has refused to recognize the community as eligible for Aliyah. This, despite the fact that an ordained rabbi, Gershom Sizomu (ordained at the Ziegler Rabbinical School), serves the community.  The Masorti student organization, Marom, has an active chapter in Kampala with weekly Shabbat services and meals (not so much during Corona times). The community runs Jewish day schools (elementary and high school). The government of Israel claims it has been “studying the issue” for about seven years.

The Jewish Agency has given official recognition to the community and was helpful in bringing the first ever Abayudaya Birthright group to Israel.

So why write about the community again?  One young man, Rabbin, came here to Jerusalem to study at the Conservative Yeshiva. He received his visa from the Israeli embassy in Kenya. That visa expired in early June. Rabin wishes to continue studying here as he is unable, owing to Corona, to return to his home in Uganda. In order to remain he must extend his student visa. So far, so good.

Rabbin has now been to the Interior Ministry’s visa department five times. On each visit he has been asked to provide yet one more document (this despite having provided all necessary documents to obtain his original visa). The letters his rabbi wrote have been rejected as they are not “original.”  What exactly does that mean? The rabbi wrote and signed the letters on stationary with his own letterhead and emailed them to Rabbin. That is not considered original. The details of his conversion, he has been told, are insufficient. His conversion certificate was a problem as it is laminated. They want to know how they can be certain that his application is not a ruse to stay in the country (as though that should be an issue for someone who is Jewish and should be eligible for Aliyah).

I accompanied Rabbin to the Interior Ministry offices just yesterday where we still failed to make progress.

Lest there be any doubt that this may be related to the color of his skin I would like to remind readers that one member of the Abayudaya community, Yehuda Kimani, who obtained a visa to study at the Conservative Yeshiva (December 2018) was detained at the airport in Israel and sent home. At a Knesset hearing on this deportation, the director of the ministry’s Population Registry and Status Department, Amos Arbel, denied that different criteria are applied to visa applicants based on their country of origin. However, he said, “He’s a Goy From Kenya,” and asked his detractors during the Knesset hearing: “Do you want half of Africa coming here?”

So there you have it. A good Jewish boy from Uganda, here in Israel to study Torah, has been unable, thus far, to receive an extension to his student visa.

A second young man, also here in Israel, applied for Aliyah about two years back. The Interior Ministry ordered him out of the country. Owing to the legal intervention of our lawyer, that order was put on hold until the court takes action on the matter.

There are those who have asked if the difficulty is a result of the conversions being carried out by non-orthodox Batei Din. Let it be clear that the law in Israel demands recognition, for purposes of registration and Aliyah, of those converted by non-Orthodox Batei Din. I am frustrated. The community in Uganda is frustrated. So too Rabbin, Yehuda and others wishing to study in Israel. Justice requires us to continue the fight for Rabbin and for others in his community. This is far from finished business

About the Author
Rabbi Andrew Sacks is the director of the Rabbinical Assembly of Israel and the Religious Affairs Bureau.
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