Israel’s Interior Ministry’s political sin of rejecting Jewish converts

The Midrash teaches us Jews, “When a person wants to become part of the Jewish people, we must receive him or her with open hands so as to bring that person under the wings of the Divine Presence” (Leviticus Rabbah 2:9) for “Behold, I am a God who brings near’ says the Lord, “and not a God who repels”.(Jeremiah 23:23)

So American Jews with ties to a small community of Conservative Jewish converts in Uganda are condemning a decision by Israel’s Interior Ministry to reject the right of those Jews to immigrate to Israel according to an article in the 1/28/21 issue of the Times of Israel.

The ministry was responding to a Supreme Court petition by Kibita Yosef, a Ugandan Jew who had requested permission to make aliyah. Yosef, who converted to Judaism in 2008 under the auspices of the Conservative movement, first applied to immigrate to Israel while studying in an Israeli yeshiva under the Law of Return.

The law allows all Jews, including those who have converted, to become citizens of Israel.

But the Interior Ministry, which handles citizenship, rejected Yosef’s application, according to the Haaretz daily. Yosef has appealed to the Supreme Court, which is expected to make its decision next week and hopefully will overrule the ministry.

The conflict could have potential consequences for Jews worldwide. “We’re profoundly disappointed by the Interior Ministry’s decision,” said Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal, CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and the Rabbinical Assembly, which has a longstanding relationship with the Abayudaya Jewish community in Uganda. “We see it as a profound insult to the Conservative movement.”

The Abayudaya began practicing Judaism in 1919 after a Ugandan leader, Semei Kakungulu, declared himself a Jew and began adopting Jewish practices. In 2002, the Conservative movement began overseeing official conversions in the community.

The Ugandan community is affiliated with the Masorti Olami, the international organization representing Conservative communities worldwide, and is home to a chapter of Marom, a Conservative movement youth group.

Gershom Sizomu later became the first Ugandan rabbi after his ordination at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, the Conservative movement’s seminary in Los Angeles. A woman from the community, Shoshanna Nambi, is now a rabbinical student at the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

Blumenthal said he had visited the community in Uganda and seen “the vibrancy of their Jewish life” and “a deep love of Israel and the Jewish people.” The Jewish Agency, the para-governmental organization in Israel that facilitates and encourages immigration to Israel, has recognized the Jewishness of Ugandan Jews.

But the Interior Ministry, which has the final say over matters of citizenship and is run by Aryeh Deri, head of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, who has taken a very negative approach.

“Part of this is a battle for who gets to define Judaism,” said Rabbi Bradley Artson, dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies.

The validity of conversion by non-Orthodox rabbis, and even by Orthodox rabbis who do not meet the standards of the ultra-Orthodox Israeli Chief Rabbinate, has been a contentious subject for years. Converts to Judaism who move to Israel whose conversions are not recognized by the Chief Rabbinate cannot marry in Israel, for the Chief Rabbinate controls marriages.

Reform and Conservative conversions performed in Israel have not been recognized for years.The rejection of the Ugandan community’s conversions could cast doubt on other conversions performed by those same Conservative rabbis.

“Let’s be clear that denying that the Abayudaya are authentically Jewish is on some level saying that my rabbinical school isn’t an authentic rabbinical school and it’s saying that I’m not an authentic rabbi,” said Artson, who was involved in the conversion of hundreds of Ugandan Jews.

Rabbi Jill Jacobs, executive director of T’ruah, a rabbinic human rights organization, condemned the Interior Ministry’s position on the Yosef. “I’m very proud that the Conservative Movement, to which I belong, has forged a strong relationship w/this community, including ordaining a rabbi & fighting for community’s rights in Israel,” she wrote in a tweet.

Blumenthal said the decision to reject Yosef’s claim would only further divide American Jews from Israel. “It’s one more example of a wedge that the Israeli government is driving between some in Israel and the Jewish people outside Israel,” he said.

Every ultra-orthodox person who works in the Interior Ministry and the Israeli Rabbinate bureaucracy should be required to study the sad story of Timna. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 99b) condemns those who push potential converts away by relating that Isaac and Jacob pushed away Timna the sister of Lotan, who wanted to become Jewish. So she then married a son of Esau.

One of her descendants was Amalek who attacked Israel shortly after they escaped from Egypt. If, instead of being pushed away, Timna had become Jewish, Amalek would have been on our side, and not one of our enemies.

Most ultra-Orthodox rabbis agreed with Rabbi Isaac who said “Evil after evil comes upon those who receive converts”. But Rabbi Isaac lived in the early 4th century when the Catholic Church was vociferously attacking pagans who choose to become Jews rather than Christians. Perhaps they feared Christian anti-Semitism if Jews were to openly welcome converts.

On the other hand, Rabbi Simon ben Lakish proclaimed that a convert is more beloved to God than all the Jews who stood at Sinai. Perhaps he was reacting to those who claimed Jewishness was in their noble genes. Rabbi Eleazar ben Pedat and Rabbi Johanan went so far as to teach that the forced exile of the Jewish people among the Gentiles, was really a God given opportunity to influence Gentiles to become Jewish.

Some Rabbis tried to test the sincerity of potential converts by making great demands of time and effort from them. Opposing this Rabbi Johanan advises that you should push potential converts away with your left hand and draw them close with your right hand. Since most people are right handed if you actually push away more than a few you are being too negative.

Today’s ultra-orthodox rabbi bureaucrats also use the power given to them by the Knesset to prevent Jews from marring each other; an equally sinful act as pushing away potential converts.

The number of people in Israel each year whose marriage plans are disrupted when their Jewish status is rejected by Israel’s rabbinate has doubled since 2010 according to Itim, a nonprofit organization that guides Israelis through the country’s religious bureaucracy.

In 2010, the number of Jews who registered to marry in Israel and were unable to because of doubts over their Jewish status was 103, or 3.1% of all Israelis who registered to marry that year. In 2017, some 231 of those registering to marry, or some 6.7%, were unable to prove to the rabbinate that they were Jewish, according to data presented at a Knesset hearing.

During the same years, the number of people on a list of Israelis whose Jewish status is “pending clarification” rose from 90 in 2010 to 175 in 2017.

Up to 20% of Israeli couples are required to undergo background checks, most of them Russian speakers who immigrated under the Law of Return, which allows anyone with at least one Jewish grandparent to become a citizen.

The figures appear in a report prepared by the Knesset Research and Information Center for a meeting of the Committee on Immigration, Absorption, and Diaspora Affairs. In Israel marriage and divorce is handled only through Orthodox religious courts, so a Jewish couple must prove to the rabbinate that they are Jewish according to Orthodox Jewish law. If one person of a couple is not acknowledged as Jewish, the couple have no legal way of marrying in Israel.

For purposes of marriage the rabbinate automatically accepts individuals as Jewish if their parents were married by an orthodox rabbi in Israel or by a recognized orthodox rabbi outside of Israel. Any individual who does not have the required paperwork is added to a list of those “pending clarification.

Rabbi Seth Farber, chairman of Itim, said in a statement that this approach of investigating Jewish status contradicts Jewish law. “According to Jewish law, when a person comes and says that he is Jewish, he is to be believed,”

Rabbi Farber also said. “Furthermore, if a clarification is needed, it is customary to do everything possible in order to approve the person’s Jewish status, and not the opposite.”

Farber said the rabbinical courts act “without basic morals or standards.” “The rabbinate has raised the bar to a level where most people who are Jewish wouldn’t be able to prove it. Moreover, they are invalidating Jewishness retroactively, which is unprecedented in Jewish history,” he said. “Any person who cares about the future of Judaism or Israel should recognize the danger in this phenomenon.”

One of the ways the rabbinate confirms Jewish identity of applicants is through a letter from a rabbi in their home community. In July 2017, JTA published a secret internal rabbinate “blacklist” of some 160 rabbis, including several prominent American Orthodox leaders, whom the Chief Rabbinate does not trust to confirm the Jewish identities of immigrants.

Rabbis from 24 countries, including the United States and Canada, were on the list. In addition to Reform and Conservative rabbis, the list includes Orthodox leaders like Avi Weiss, father of the Open Orthodoxy movement from the Riverdale section of New York.

The Chief Rabbinate later said the list was misconstrued, and was not a blacklist: it was something else. Indeed, it was outright slander, which is why it was kept secret. Our Rabbis taught us that hurting the feelings of converts, and wronging them in any way, was prohibited by six commandments: “One who wounds the feelings of a convert to Judaism transgresses three ‘you must not’ commandments and… one who oppresses a convert to Judaism transgresses three more” (Talmud Baba Mezia 59b).

About the Author
Rabbi Allen S. Maller has published over 450 articles on Jewish values in over a dozen Christian, Jewish, and Muslim magazines and web sites. Rabbi Maller is the author of "Tikunay Nefashot," a spiritually meaningful High Holy Day Machzor, two books of children's short stories, and a popular account of Jewish Mysticism entitled, "God, Sex and Kabbalah." His most recent books are "Judaism and Islam as Synergistic Monotheisms' and "Which Religion Is Right For You?: A 21st Century Kuzari" both available on Amazon.
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