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Bo 5782 ~ January 7, 2022

When the children of Israel hastily left Egypt, at not only the plea but the demand of the Pharaoh, anyone who considered themselves “a member of the tribe,” left en masse. The Torah records the number of able men who left to be about 600,000, plus women, children and the elderly. There was no question as to whom might be considered a part of the community. The Torah is so specific that it also shares with us that “varied groups of forced laborers took advantage of the moment and fled the country as well.”

Today, in Israel, there is a whole change of reality with regard to identifying who is a true member of the tribe. And, in that regard, there seems to be an increasing movement within the differing agencies to prove one’s Jewishness beyond what is realistic. For example, the simple fact that I can prove that I have been ordained by the Rabbinical Assembly, or that I wear tefillin every day, (a mitzvah found in this week’s Torah reading) may not be enough to prove that I am Jewish “enough.” Despite the fact that I am Jewish by birth, and that my parents were Jewish and my grandparents were Jewish. The fact that I am a Levite, passed on from generation to generation all the way back to the actual Exodus, is not sufficient proof either by some agencies. Some agencies require that I have witness testimony to prove my Jewishness.

I may be taking this matter to the extreme since I doubt that might happen in my case. Yet others have found themselves having to prove their Jewish identify, in multiple instances, despite being born Jewish.

Converts to Judaism, especially those converted in Israel by both the Reform and our own Masorti rabbis, find themselves caught in the middle with uncertainty. Some today even find themselves being declared non-Jewish and one is about to be extradited from Israel simply because his conversion was Masorti. (It is actually easier for one who is converted in the Diaspora to be declared Jewish for purposes of the Law of Return, but not for marriage, etc.)

“In almost all these cases, the converts were either married or had been married to Israelis and had moved to Israel from former Soviet bloc countries, Eastern Europe or South America. Another group of about 30 temporary residents, all converted in Israel by either the Reform or Conservative movements, had applied for citizenship before the High Court ruling. Under a special arrangement, they were given permission to stay in the country until the decision was announced. To date, only two members of this group have been approved for citizenship. Another was rejected (the Israel Religious Action Center, an advocacy group, has appealed the decision), while all the others are waiting for word on whether they will be allowed to stay in the country. Nearly 50 other converts applied for citizenship after the March ruling. Out of this group, only one convert has thus far been approved for citizenship, and barely a handful have been interviewed by the Israel Interior Ministry.” (Haaretz)

One such convert’s story speaks for the others, since so far only three of eighty who have petitioned the Israeli Interior Ministry have been approved since last March.

This cruel and shameful story may end even before it begins as the Interior Ministry has ordered that Kibita Yosef be expelled before the Masorti Movement has a court date to make their case. (Just prior to my sending this message to you, my colleagues in Israel have received word that the Ministry has had a change of heart and has been assured that the Interior Ministry will not deport Yosef before a court hearing. They suggest: One way to show support for Yosef would be to email him directly or message him on Facebook.  I am told that he is a very special human being who has had to tolerate far too much in his Aliyah process.  https://www.facebook.com/kibita.yosef)

The application, turned down by the Interior Ministry, was viewed as a test case for a landmark court ruling recognizing conversions performed in Israel by non-Orthodox movements.

Israel’s Interior Ministry rejected on Wednesday an appeal to reconsider the application for citizenship under the Law of Return from a member of the Jewish community of Uganda who was converted through the Conservative movement.

The application, submitted by Yosef Kibita, was rejected last month on the grounds that he had not undergone a proper conversion program. Kibita, a member of the 2,000-strong Abayudaya community, has been living in Israel for the past four years and has undergone three separate conversions to Judaism – two in Uganda and one in Israel.

The Israel Religious Action Center, which appealed the decision, noted that Kibita has been living on Ketura, a kibbutz affiliated with the Conservative-Masorti movement, since moving to Israel, where he is an active member of the religious community. It noted that back in Uganda, he had studied in a Jewish school and was an active member of the Jewish community there as well.

In its rejection letter, the Interior Ministry said that Kibita must leave Israel within 30 days. The letter was signed by Ronit Elian, director of the foreign visas department.

His application for citizenship had been viewed as a test case for the landmark Supreme Court ruling last March that recognized conversions performed in Israel by the Conservative and Reform movements. Kibita is the first member of the Abayudaya community to apply for citizenship in Israel.

In 2018, he applied for citizenship under the Law of Return but was rejected. The Interior Ministry told him that his conversion did not meet the required criteria. In response, Kibita, together with the Conservative movement in Israel, petitioned the High Court. They were represented by IRAC, the advocacy arm of he Reform movement in Israel.

In February, the court ruled in favor of the Interior Ministry, noting that Kibita was converted in 2008 – a year before the Abayudaya were accepted into the international Conservative-Masorti movement and a year before they obtained recognized status from the Jewish Agency. Kibita’s work visa was, however, extended until the end of December, and the court recommended that in the meantime, he convert again in a recognized Jewish community.

When the High Court ruled a month later that non-Orthodox conversions performed in Israel would be recognized for the purpose of the Law of Return, the Conservative movement decided to take up the court’s suggestion and have him converted in the country. Since Kibita had already been practicing Judaism from a young age, the movement decided to suffice with a quick conversion that did not require the usual lengthy period of study

Yosef Kibita at the office of the Ministry of the Interior, which again rejected his application for citizenship.

Responding to Elian’s letter, Alon Tal, a lawmaker from the centrist Kahol Lavan party, sent an urgent letter to Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked on Wednesday urging her to intervene. “The issue of Mr. Kibita’s status has already sparked debate in the Jewish world because the decision would seem to delegitimize the Conservative movement, which has one million members around the world.”

Tal, an active member of the Conservative movement, wrote that IRAC planned to appeal the decision in court – a move he supported. “Regardless of how the court rules, I assume we can all agree that any person facing fateful decisions about his future deserves at least to have his day in court without the threat of deportation. This is especially true when it comes to a Jew who arrived in Israel on a Jewish Agency program, is active in the community and the synagogue of Kibbutz Ketura and, of course, has proven himself to be a law-abiding resident who has integrated well into the Israeli economy.” (Haaretz; Reporter Judy Maltz)

As we begin to celebrate Shabbat in a month where we herald Israel with our celebration of Tu B’Shevat in just a week’s time, let us be mindful of this injustice against not only Yosef Kibita, but against Jewish converts around the globe who don’t fit the standards of the Orthodox in Israel. It is truly a Shanda that this Orthodox group holds such sway in Israel as to be able to legitimize their own people as the true Jews who left Egypt in our Torah reading for this Shabbat.

May we be strengthened in our commitment to our Jewish self, and to the Jewish community here and around the globe.

Sat, June 25 2022 26 Sivan 5782