Birthright Participant From Uganda Told He’s Not Jewish Enough for Israeli Yeshiva Program

Asiimwe Rabbin, who led the first-ever Birthright group from Uganda, denied visa because Interior Ministry does not accept his community as eligible for Law of Return

File photo: Young Ugandan Jews make prayers at the new Stern Synagogue in Mbale, eastern Uganda on Nov. 3, 2016.
AP Photo/Stephen Wandera

In August, Asiimwe Rabbin led the first-ever Birthright group from Uganda on a 10-day trip to Israel. It was his second visit to the country, having participated in a previous gathering of Conservative youth movement leaders in Jerusalem.

This week, however, Rabbin was notified that he will not be able to spend a semester studying at the Conservative yeshiva in Jerusalem as he had planned. The government of Israel, he was told, does not deem him Jewish enough.

Rabbin, 28, belongs to the Abayudaya community, whose members embraced Judaism about 100 years ago but who only officially converted in recent years. Almost all of the Abayudaya were converted by rabbis affiliated with the Conservative-Masorti movement.

According to the Law of Return, an individual can immigrate to Israel if he or she has converted to Judaism, provided that the conversion was undertaken in a “recognized Jewish community.” It does not matter whether the conversion was overseen by Orthodox or non-Orthodox rabbis.

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Two years ago, the Jewish Agency ruled that the Abayudaya are a “recognized Jewish community” for the purpose of this law. However, the Interior Ministry, which has the final say on approving visa requests, does not accept this ruling.

The yeshiva program in which Rabbin had planned to enroll is sponsored by Masa, an organization that brings 12,000 young Jews to Israel every year on hundreds of study, volunteer and internship programs. Masa receives most of its funding from the Jewish Agency. In order to participate in Masa-sponsored programs, applicants must receive approval in advance for what is known as a “Masa visa.” Such visas are granted only to applicants who are eligible to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return.

Asked why Rabbin had been turned down, if the Jewish Agency recognizes the Abayudaya as eligible under the Law of Return, Masa Executive Director Liran Avisar Ben Horin told Haaretz: “The Jewish Agency does indeed recognize members of the Abayudaya community who converted after 2009, but decisions regarding eligibility under the Law of Return are in the hands of the Interior Ministry. As Masa is subject to conditions set by the Interior Ministry in this regard, we were forced to turn down his request for a Masa visa.”

About half a dozen members of the Abayudaya community have studied at the Conservative yeshiva in recent years, but many others have seen their requests to participate in programs in Israel rejected. Even those who were allowed to study at the yeshiva were told that they were not eligible for the scholarships available to most other Masa participants. The Abayudaya Birthright trip, which had been in the planning for years, got off the ground only because the Interior Ministry agreed in advance not to cause problems for the participants when they landed in Israel.

Last December, a member of the community who had been accepted into a program at the Conservative yeshiva in Jerusalem was detained upon arrival at Ben-Gurion Airport and deported the following morning. The incident sparked international outrage and accusations of racism.

In May, another member of the community, who had applied to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return, had his request denied. The High Court of Justice issued a temporary injunction, however, blocking his deportation.

Rabbi Andrew Sacks, director of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly in Israel, said he hoped that the decision to rejects Rabbin’s Masa visa was “based on a misunderstanding or miscommunication.

“After it announced its recognition of the Abayudaya community, we are confident that the Jewish Agency will honor its commitment,” he said.