After Three-year Delay, Ugandan Jews Granted Permission to Study in Israel

In its decision to issue visas to African converts, the Israeli government is effectively granting formal recognition to this emerging Jewish community for the first time.

Members of the Abayudaya community pray in Mbale, eastern Uganda.
Stephen Wandera/AP

Following an extended three-year-long battle, the Interior Ministry has agreed to allow a group of African converts to participate in a study program in Israel sponsored by the Conservative movement.

A senior official at the Foreign Ministry confirmed to Haaretz that student visas for five members of the Abayudaya community in Uganda had been approved this week. The visas would be issued within the next few days by the Israeli embassy in Nairobi.

In its decision to issue the visas, the Israeli government is effectively granting formal recognition for the first time to this emerging Jewish community.

The Interior Ministry agreed to issue the visas only after the Prime Minister’s Office and the Foreign Ministry intervened on behalf of the applicants, sources familiar with the decision-making process said.

The five students will be participating in a semester-long program run by Marom, the Conservative movement’s organization for students and young adults. The program involves two months of study at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem followed by three months of volunteering at Kibbutz Ketura, which is affiliated with the movement.

Members of the Abayudaya community have in recent years been accepted to this program but were unable to attend because their visa applications were rejected by the Interior Ministry.

The decision to approve the visa applications comes in the nick of time, as the new semester is scheduled to begin on February 8. All five participants have been awarded full scholarships from Masa, which runs hundreds of government-subsidized educational, volunteer and internship programs in Israel.

Last year, the Jewish Agency ruled that the Abayudaya are a “recognized” Jewish community. Only converts from officially recognized communities are eligible for citizenship in Israel under the Law of Return.

The Abayudaya community split from Christianity in the early 20th century when its members began identifying as Jews and observing Jewish laws and customs. In 2002, a rabbinical court sent to Uganda by the Conservative movement formally converted most of the 1,500-strong community. Since 2009, the community has had its own rabbi.

The Interior Ministry, the authority charged with approving requests for immigration and other visas, typically relies on recommendations and rulings from the Jewish Agency when the status of a community is unclear. In some cases, however, it has overruled the Jewish Agency.

According to Interior Ministry regulations, only Jews are eligible to participate in programs offered by non-degree conferring institutions, such as yeshivas, and they must obtain special student visas confirming their status in order to enroll.  By granting the Abayudaya their student visas, the Interior Ministry has effectively accepted the claim that they are indeed Jewish.