Previously Deemed Not Kosher, Venezuelan Jews Arrive in Israel

Israel initially refused to accept the nine converts, whose remote Venezuela area suffers shortages of food and medicine.

Venezuelan Jewish converts arrive at Ben-Gurion Airport in Israel, March 23, 2017.
Venezuelan Jewish converts arrive at Ben-Gurion Airport in Israel, March 23, 2017. Sebastian Scheiner/AP

Following months of deprivation and uncertainty, a group of nine Venezuelan Jewish converts – originally barred from immigrating to Israel – finally arrived in the country on Thursday.

The Ministry of Interior had initially rejected their request to immigrate because of questions surrounding the circumstances of their conversions. The nine Venezuelans – five adults and four children – were converted three years ago by a Conservative rabbinical court.  Suffering from shortages of food and medicine, they have been living in a remote area of the country where their safety is at risk.

Franklin Perez dips his son in a ritual bath to mark their conversion to Judaism in Bogota, Colombia, March 19, 2017.
Christine Armario/AP

The plight of the Venezuelan converts had drawn the attention of Jewish world leaders, who denounced the Israeli government for putting technicalities involving conversion rules ahead of humanitarian concerns. According to the Law of Return, which determines eligibility for immigration, only converts who have spent a minimum of nine months engaged in communal life in an established Jewish community abroad are allowed to move to Israel. The Ministry of Interior insisted that the Venezuelans had not fulfilled this prerequisite, despite their claims to the contrary.

The government ultimately capitulated, but as part of a compromise deal hammered out in the Knesset, it was agreed that the nine Venezuelans would undergo a second “symbolic” conversion before flying to Israel. That second conversion, which entailed immersing themselves once again in a mikveh, or ritual bath, was performed several days ago in Bogota, Colombia. The ritual was overseen by Rabbi Andrew Sacks, director of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly in Israel, who has been accompanying the group and representing them in their struggle with Israeli authorities.

Leaders of the Conservative movement had protested this condition, terming it degrading, but said they had no choice but to accept it since the converts faced a life-and-death situation in Venezuela.

Venezuelan Jewish converts Sahir Quintero, from left to right, Sarai Garcia, Nathanael Garcia, Hermidez Garcia, and Nadine Martinez, at their home in Maracay, Venezuela, Jan. 31, 2017.
Fernando Llano, AP

It was also agreed that the converts would not be eligible for automatic citizenship under the Law of Return when they arrive in Israel, as are most Jews. Rather, they will have to prove that they have been actively engaged in a Jewish communal life for a minimum period of nine months before they can be naturalized.

The Venezuelans will be put up in an immigrant absorption center run by the Jewish Agency in Beersheba. While there, they will be members of the local Conservative congregation, one of Israel’s largest. Until they complete the nine-month period of active Jewish engagement, the Venezuelans will hold temporary resident status in Israel. They will, however, be eligible for many of the benefits conferred on new immigrants.

The nine converts are from three families who come from the town of Maracay, where no recognized Jewish community exists. For the better part of the past two years, they have been active members of a synagogue in Valencia, a recognized Jewish community, which is about an hour’s drive away.

Venezuelan Jewish converts Hermidez Garcia, from right to left, Franklin Perez and Jackson Marrone in their home in Maracay, Venezuela, Jan. 31, 2017.
Fernando Llano, AP