Black Converts Present a Poser To Return Law: Immigration Denied

New York–– In the latest flare up in the battle over non-Orthodox conversion in Israel, an American family that converted to Judaism within the conservative movement is being denied immigration privilege stipulated in Israel’s law of Return.

Under the law of Return, all Jews are allowed to immigrate to Israel. Earlier this week, the Yisrael family, which converted to Judaism in 1988 through a conservative rabbinic court at California, was detained at Ben-Gurion airport instead of being welcomed as new immigrants.

For more than a year, the issue of non-orthodox converion has been a sore spot for the American Jewish community. While the Orthodox chief rabbinate has sole authority over rites of passage like conversion and marriage, most American Jews identify with the Reform or Conservative movement. Prime Minister Netanyhu has assured American Jewry that ceremonies officiated at America by non-orthodox rabbis will continue to be recognized, and his adviser on Diaspora affairs, Bobby Brown, speaks of the achievements of the Ne’eman commission, established to find a compromise among the streams on the conversion issue. Still, this week’s incident indicates that the matter is far from resolved.

“The Interior Ministry has no right to refuse our converts from outside of Israel. They nonetheless have been doing so. This is especially so when they are of color,” the director of the (conservative) Rabbinical Assembly of Israel, Rabbi Andrew Sacks, wrote in an e-mail obtained by the Forward. “ I have been trying to sound the wake up call.” Now such converts are being held in custody. Outrageous but true,” Rabbi Sacks wrote.

“The executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, Rabbi Jerome Epstein, said immigration officials detained the African-American family at the airport on Monday, denying them entry into Israel unless they agreed to leave within 30 days. Owing to the efforts of a lawyer for the Masorti movement, the Israeli counterpart to the Conservative movement, the agreement was amended to allow for the possibility of court relief.

“I am hopeful that this was just a slip-up and that when things become clear, they are going to resolve this matter in a important and proper way. I can’t imagine that this matter won’t be resolved in appropriate fashion,” Rabbi Epstein said. “The prime minister gave assurance to the American Jewish community that conversions from North America would be recognized, and I’m very optimistic that this will be resolved very quickly.”

Rabbi Epstein said this case is the first such case that has come to attention of the Conservative movement’s leadership “since the Ne’eman commission began its work.” He added, “I’m sure there have been snafus before. Those have been resolved.”

The minister for public affairs at the Israeli embassy at Washington, AVi Granot, said he is doing “everything [he] possibly can’ to look into the matter. “It looks strange to me on the surface. It’s not the policy of the Ministry of Interior. It is not clear to me whether there is any other reason to hold them back,” Mr. Granot said.

The Yisrael family converted to Judaism at California in 1988, the executive vice president of the rabbinical Assembly, Rabbi Joel Meyers, told the Forward. The family then moved to Chicago, where they belonged to a conservative synagogue. Elezar Yisrael moved to Israel about a year-and a-half ago and had become a citizen. After becoming involved in synagogue life in Israel and establishing himself, Mr. Yisrael returned for his wife, children and grandchildren. Aliya, Rabbi Meyers said, “was dream for them.”

The attorney handling the case is treating it as an immigration mix-up rather than focusing on the family’s Conservative conversion or their race. Rabbi Meyers said. “I think this is an overreaction on the part of immigration authorities, similar to what happens in the United States at times. I am hopeful that it will be resolved soon,” he said.

“The authorities in Israel are very leery and suspicious of blacks emigrating from the United States…. I think it had more to do with Israel being concerned about black groups that have tried to claim that they are descendants of the Jewish people,” Rabbi Meyers said.

“Rabbi Sacks declined to comment on the matter.

The executive director of the Masorti Foundation, the Washington, D.C. based body that raises funds and develops programs for the Masorti movement, Samuel Siflen, said that if the story “is at it appears, a terrible miscalculation has been made,” one which is shocking on many, levels.”

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