A U.S.-born convert is taking the Interior Ministry to court for failing to grant him immigrant status because officials say they have proof he still believes in Jesus and is engaged in missionary activity. Several people dealing with conversions in Israel who have an intimate knowledge of the case also said they share the ministry's suspicion.
But the convert, Luden Centeno, denies the allegations and recently submitted a petition to the High Court of Justice against the ministry. A hearing is scheduled for May 14, 2012.
Raised in a Spanish-speaking household in New York, Centeno, 55, was a regular churchgoer who says he suddenly felt pulled toward Israel. During a 2004 visit, he says he discovered his family is descended from Marranos - Jews forcibly converted to Christianity in medieval Spain - and decided to return to his roots. He approached several Israeli organizations dealing with conversions but says not one, including the state's conversion authorities, helped him complete the procedure. Back in the United States, he studied Judaism with a Conservative rabbi and converted with him in March 2009.
Not much later, Centeno applied for immigration status, but the Interior Ministry's Population and Immigration Authority rejected him, saying he was "engaged in Messianic activity" during and after his conversion. They had found articles on his blog that showed he believed Jesus was the Jewish Messiah, officials said. Because of his belief he could not be considered Jewish and thus is ineligible to immigrate under the Law of Return, they argued.
The ministry specifically quoted an article on Centeno's blog entitled "Why Jews don't celebrate Christmas." The article was since removed from the site, but Centeno, who now lives in Jerusalem, asserts he didn't author it.
Both Centeno and his Jewish-born wife have signed affidavits stating that he does not believe in Jesus or the New Testament and that he considers Messianic Jews to be Christians but sees himself as a Jew.
However, knowledgeable sources familiar with Centeno's case told Anglo File they have seen "hundreds" of documents that clearly show he believes Jesus is the Messiah.
"Anybody can Google my name," said Centeno, a former police officer. "Yes, I'm on Christian sites. But I found out I was a Jew. I never denied that I went to church ... It took me a while to come out of church. It didn't happen overnight. And my rabbi knew this, and he's saying: And so what?"
The director of the Israeli Reform movement's legal aid center for new immigrants, Nicole Center-Maor, told Anglo File she declined to take on Centeno's case after she learned that the local Masorti movement - which usually supports converts in their struggles with the authorities - would not endorse Centeno's conversion.
Florida-based Rabbi Richard Margolis, who oversaw Centeno's conversion, stated in August 2009 that Luden "to the best of our knowledge does not adhere to or practice any other religion" than Judaism. An assistant to Margolis said he declined to comment on the case.
Centeno is married to an Israeli woman through whom he could attain Israeli citizenship. But he insists the authorities accept him as a Jew.
"I chose to go the hard way because many like me will discover that they are Converso Jews from Spain and I believe that when we win this case, this is going to swing open the doors to many," Centeno told Anglo File this week, using a term for forcibly converted Spanish Jews.
"I am not doing this for my own benefit. I'm doing this because I believe that if [God] brought me here to my home, which is Israel - and he's taken care of me all along, even though we're struggling - I want to fight," said Centeno, wearing a flashy necklace in the shape of a Star of David. "I don't want the easy way out."
The father of a baby girl, Centeno has no work permit and says he currently cleans toilets to make ends meet. He said he owned homes in the U.S. and Puerto Rico but that he does not want to sell them because they have lost much of their value in the global financial crisis.
"I could take my family back to the U.S., but this is our home," he said.
A spokesman for the Jewish Agency said it opened an immigration file for Centeno but that the Interior Ministry has the last word on his eligibility. A ministry spokesman told Anglo File that Centeno's case "is pending in court."
According to Centeno's lawyer, Michael Decker of the Yehuda Raveh law firm, the Interior Ministry has no reason to deny him immigrant status. While officials might have the right to ask Centeno whether he believed in Jesus, they cannot reject him based on the articles they found online.
"My client was officially converted, and circumcised, and still has the support of the rabbis which converted him," Decker said. "The government does officially accept Conservative conversions. The simple question is whether our client is today a Jew, or a 'member of another religion.' Our client declares that he is a Jew and that he believes in Judaism, and not in Christianity, or any form of Christianity ... I did not yet find any evidence which would infer that our client believes in Christianity."
Concerning Centeno's alleged Christian belief, Decker referred to the affidavit Centeno and his wife signed attesting that they do not believe in Jesus.
"Shouldn't that be enough?" he asked. "What other measures can a democratic system take?"
But Center-Maor, of the legal aid center for immigrants, said the Supreme Court ruled that the Law of Return only applies to converts as long their conversion was sincere and that the state "definitely" has the right to try to determine a convert's sincerity.
Rabbi Seth Farber, whose Itim organization assists converts in dealing with Israeli authorities, said Centeno's case points to a serious legal lacuna. "There is no legal threshold that determines when someone is a missionary and when not," he said. "Is a personal statement of the individual enough? Is it the behavior of the person, is it what the [religious] movement [under whose auspices the conversion was performed] determines? In this specific case, where the Conservative movement doesn't stand behind the conversion - is this enough to disavow an individual of the capacity to make aliyah? What if the individual rabbi stands behind the conversion but the movement doesn't? There is a serious problem that the court will have to address. I do not envy the court that will have to rule on this."