Nine Venezuelan converts, said to be facing extraordinary difficulties as the situation in their country deteriorates, have been told they cannot immigrate to Israel because, despite evidence provided to the contrary, they are not actively engaged in Jewish communal life.
Two weeks ago, following more than six month of back and forth with Jewish Agency and Ministry of Interior officials, the Venezuelans, all of whom were converted by a Conservative rabbinical court, were notified that their immigration visa requests had been rejected.
According to the Law of Return, which determines eligibility for immigration, Jews of choice who wish to move to Israel are required to have undergone conversion in a “recognized Jewish community” – one with a fulltime rabbi and an active synagogue.
They must then spend at least nine months actively engaged in Jewish communal life in a recognized community before they can move to Israel.
Where no “recognized Jewish community” exists, as in this particular case, the Israeli Ministry of Interior requires a longer period of engagement in Jewish communal life following the conversion.
According to documentation submitted to the Jewish Agency, the nine applicants are all from the small rural town of Maracay, where no recognized Jewish community exists.
Following three years of study, in early 2014, they were converted by a Conservative rabbinical court, comprised of three American rabbis. Afterward, they joined a synagogue in Valencia, a recognized Jewish community about an hour’s drive away, where they have been active members ever since.
The nine converts, all indigenous Venezuelans, belong to three families. In documentation presented to the Jewish Agency in November, Rabbi Juan Mejia, a Spanish-speaking rabbi from Oklahoma who oversaw the conversions, confirmed that they had all joined the Jewish community of Valencia at his recommendation.
Yet in response to a query from Haaretz, a spokeswoman for the Ministry of Interior said the reason their immigration requests had been rejected was that “during the entire period when they were preparing for their conversion and in the period that followed, they did not belong to a Jewish community.”
In a letter addressed to Jewish Agency officials several months ago, Mejia begged for compassion from the Israeli authorities, noting the severe shortages in food and medicine his converts were facing, as well as threats to their personal safety.
“The country in which they live is collapsing around them,” he wrote. “That means that they are, most days, only eating one meal a day because it is impossible to get food in the empty supermarkets.
Crime is rampant. One of my students had his salary and medicine stolen by the National Guard, which has turned against Venezuela’s citizens. All of my students have had people murdered on the streets where they live and work.”
Mejia noted that unlike the established and more affluent Jewish community of Venezuela, which is largely based in Caracas, his converts do not reside in heavily-guarded neighborhood and therefore face great risks.
He warned that delays in processing their immigration requests “can be a matter of life and death.”
Asked to comment about the decision to reject their applications, a spokesman for the Jewish Agency said: “The determination of eligibility for aliyah is the sole purview of the Ministry of the Interior.”
Despite that, in many cases, such as that of the Falashmura in Ethiopia, the Ministry of Interior rules on eligibility based on recommendations it receives from the Jewish Agency.
When determining the eligibility of converts, the Law of Return does not distinguish between those converted by Orthodox, Conservative or Reform rabbis. In practice, though, applications submitted by Orthodox converts tend to be approved more easily.
Last week, during a special Knesset caucus meeting attended by a delegation of American rabbis representing the various Jewish movements, the Israeli government was attacked for its indifference to the plight of the Venezuelan Jews.
The issue was raised by Asher Lopatin, a prominent modern Orthodox rabbi.
“These nine individuals underwent conversions that were 100 percent in line with the Law of Return,” he said, “and I am saying that as an Orthodox rabbi. They must be allowed to come to Israel.”
Leading the struggle in Israel on behalf of the nine converts is Rabbi Andy Sacks, director of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly in Israel.
“Sadly it is all too common that issues of race and denominational affiliation play into the decisions made by the Interior Ministry,” he said.
“Far too often, there is no legitimate mechanism for appealing decisions once they’ve been made.” Sacks added that the Prime Minister’s Office had ignored requests that it intervene.
In an email exchange with Haaretz, Mejia wrote: "More egregious than that Israel would deny people who fulfill the legal requirements their right of return is the fact that the actions of the Interior Ministry are continuing to put these people's life at risk."