First Israel Deported a Convert From Kenya. Now Birthright Might Cancel an Entire Trip for African Jews

Plan to bring 40 Ugandan converts on an Israel tour is at risk amid fears the participants wouldn't be allowed in, officials at the Jewish Agency and world Conservative movement say

The three-month visa issued to Yehuda Kimani, signed by Israel’s ambassador in Nairobi Noah Gal Gendler.
Rabbi Andy Sacks

Plans to bring a first-ever group of Ugandan Jews to Israel on a Birthright trip are in jeopardy following the recent deportation of a member of their community.

The group of 40 Ugandans had been scheduled to arrive in Israel in late May on the free 10-day trip available to young Jewish adults from around the world. But Birthright officials are now concerned the group may be turned away upon arrival, just as 31-year-old Yehudah Kimani was, because the immigration authorities do not consider them Jewish.

The trip has been in the planning for two years.

The prospective participants all belong to the Abayudaya community, which has been practicing Judaism for more than 100 years. Its members, however, only underwent formal conversions over the past 15 years, most of them under the supervision of Conservative rabbis.

In late December, Kimani, who hails from Kenya but lived for a year among the Abayudaya while converting, was detained upon entering Israel and deported the following morning, even though he had a valid tourist visa.

On Wednesday, at a special session of the Knesset Committee for Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs, an Interior Ministry official defended the decision to deport Kimani and insisted he was not Jewish despite his conversion.

According to officials at the Jewish Agency and world Conservative movement, following Kimani’s deportation, Birthright notified them of its intention to cancel the trip from Uganda, fearing a similar fiasco when the group arrived. Marom Olami, the young adult division of the world Conservative movement, has helped arrange details of the itinerary.

According to the officials, the Jewish Agency and world Conservative movement persuaded Birthright to refrain from any drastic moves at this point. Birthright officials responded that they would consider moving forward with the trip if two conditions were fulfilled: only Ugandans who converted after 2009 would be allowed to participate, and every participant would obtain prior approval from the Interior Ministry.

In response to a request for comment on Thursday, Birthright said: "Birthright Israel has received a request to bring a group of Jewish young adults from Uganda and is currently examining it."

The Abayudaya community is estimated to number between 1,500 and 2,000 members. Most were converted in 2002, before a smaller wave in 2008.

Only in 2009, however, did they join the world Conservative movement, and for that reason, the Jewish Agency only recognized the Abayudaya as an official Jewish community from that year. The assumption is that anyone who was converted after 2009 will have a better chance of entering Israel. (Kimani, however, was converted in 2010, and that did not prevent him from being deported.)

Yehudah Kimani blows the shofar with his son.
Courtesy of Francis Kimani

The status of the Abayudaya community has been under discussion between the Conservative movement, the Jewish Agency and the Interior Ministry for the past five years. The ministry still does not recognize members of the community as Jewish and, in response to queries over the years, has said it is still studying the matter. The ministry has the final say on who gets recognized as a Jew in Israel and who is allowed to enter the country.

Asiimwe Rabbin, a 28-year-old member of the community, applied last year to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return after visiting the country. Anyone with at least one Jewish grandparent or a Jewish spouse, or anyone who has converted in a recognized Jewish community (regardless of the affiliation) is eligible to immigrate under the Law of Return.

Last week, Rabbin received a letter from the Jewish Agency notifying him that, for the meantime, his request had been rejected because the Interior Ministry had still not recognized the Abayudaya community as Jewish. Any decision on the matter, the letter warned, “can take several years.”

Jewish Agency representatives met last week with Interior Ministry officials hoping to obtain guarantees that the Birthright group from Uganda would be welcomed into Israel. No agreement of substance came out of the discussion, and a follow-up meeting has been scheduled for next week.

Birthright has brought more than 500,000 participants to Israel from 67 countries since its inception in 1999. Several members of the Abayudaya community have taken part in other programs in Israel in recent years, but this would be the first time such a large group was coming.