The question “Who is a Jew?” has been around for quite some time. Now the question being asked is who shall determine what constitutes a Jewish community?
Many of you are familiar with the history of the Abayudaya Jewish community in Uganda. Since 1919 the Abayudaya have been living Judaism as best they knew it. In 2002, at the invitation of community leaders, Conservative/Masorti rabbis traveled to Uganda to oversee the conversions of the Abayudaya. Thus, the community not only identified and lived as Jews- they were now halachically Jewish.
In the years that followed, Gershom Sizomu was ordained by the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. Upon ordination, Rav Gershom returned to Uganda and has since served as the Abayudaya rabbi. Other members of the Rabbinical Assembly have visited and participated in subsequent Batei Din over the years. We have an active MAROM chapter in Kampla. The community is served by several synagogues, Jewish schools, Mikvaot, Shochtim, and more. They are affiliated with Masorti Olami. Two years back we celebrated the first-ever Birthright/MAROM-Uganda trip to Israel.
Yosef Kibita, who was educated as a Jew, underwent conversion in Uganda in 2008. Yosef came to Israel to study and, while here, applied for Aliyah under the Law of Return. His application for Aliyah was dismissed by the State of Israel and Yosef was ordered to leave the country. We turned to the court which ordered Yosef be allowed to remain here until such time that the court could determine if he, indeed, has the right to make Aliyah under the Law of Return.
The case that is now scheduled to come before the Israeli High Court of Justice on February1, 2021.
Current criteria for Aliyah demand that a convert to Judaism wishing to make Aliyah must have converted in a Jewish community. This is defined as a community with a Jewish infrastructure that is recognized by one of the major denominations, and/or by the Sochnut.
The Abayudaya are recognized both by our movement and by the Sochnut – along with acceptance by much of the wider Diaspora Jewish world. Yet, Israel’s Interior Ministry, under the control of Rav Arye Deri and the Shas political party, rejects the claim of the Yosef, and thus the entire community, to recognition under the terms of the Law of Return.
The position of the government is that the conversions that took place in 2002 are not valid as they did not take place in a Jewish community. Even though the Gerim had been living as Jews- until the actual conversions were completed there were no Jews and, thus, by definition, the conversions did not take place in a Jewish community. But the position held by the government goes a step further. Those subsequently born to those who were initially converted are also not eligible for Aliyah. That is to say, all members of the Abayudaya, even those converted after the community affiliated with Masorti, after Rav Gershom returned as an ordained rabbi, are forever barred.
The government offered no such resistance when the Chief Rabbinate sent out representatives to convert people in other emerging communities in order to bring them to Israel.
The primary reason the government established criteria for the Aliyah of Gerim was to avoid deception whereby people would seek conversion simply to obtain a “Green Card” to Israel. This is certainly not the case with the Abayudaya. Yosef converted over a decade ago and there is no mass rush by community members to make Aliyah. It is difficult to separate out how much of the government’s position is based upon issues of race and how much is connected to disdain for the non-Orthodox streams.
Why must the Abayudaya status be of concern to all of us? Certainly we are concerned for the well-being of this Jewish community which lives in true poverty. But there is an even larger issue the court must address. Can it be that the State of Israel can decide that Diaspora Jewish communities, affiliated with our movement, are not entitled to the same rights as enjoyed by other communities? May the Interior Ministry disregard the rights of these Jews?
The divide between Israel and Diaspora Jewry is worrying to all of us. The decision by the Interior Ministry to deny recognition to the Abayudaya (along with other emerging communities affiliated with Masorti and the Reform movement) can only serve to bring about even greater alienation.
Many have asked how to offer help. Barring a delay, caused by possible schedule changes brought about by the Corona closures, the court is set to hear arguments on February 1, 2021. The support expressed by so many is deeply appreciated by our brothers and sisters in Uganda, and, certainly, by Yosef Kibita. We ask that you stay informed. Let us see how the matter proceeds in court. We are hopeful that the Court will rule in favor of Kabita, as it has in similar cases regarding our conversions. When that happens we will need to advocate strongly for the government to follow through on the Court's decision.
If, and when, there is a need for public advocacy – we will get out a message of what is needed and how to proceed. We have raised funds to help with food scarcity, medical issues, and legal issues. This shall continue as Kol Yisrael Arevim Ze B’Ze. We shall continue to support the Abayudaya Jews in this their struggle to achieve the very same rights enjoyed by other Jews the world-over.