Conservative Leaders Call Refusal to Grant Visa to Kenyan Convert an Affront to non-Orthodox Jews

Rabbinical Assembly urges Israel to allow Yehudah Kimani to study at Conservative yeshiva in Jerusalem

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

Conservative rabbinical leaders issued a statement Tuesday, urging Israel to allow one of their converts to study in the country after he was twice denied entry.

Last week, Yehudah Kimani, a convert from Kenya, was notified that his second application for a visa – this time to study in the Conservative yeshiva in Jerusalem – had been rejected.

In its statement, the worldwide body representing rabbis in the Conservative movement, the Rabbinical Assembly, said Israel’s continued refusal to admit their convert into the country “represents both an affront to both Kimani and the non-Orthodox communities.”

Kimani had planned to study in a four-month program at the Conservative yeshiva. Instead, he was told that if he wished to visit Israel, he could only apply for a three-month tourist visa.

The Interior Ministry only approves student visas for individuals enrolled in yeshivas in Israel if they can prove they are Jewish. Kimani is a member of the Abayudaya, a community of converts based in Uganda, which has yet to be recognized by the ministry.

“Kimani’s struggles are yet another instance in which non-Orthodox communities have been degraded and denied equal status in Israel, which should instead be welcoming to all Jewish movements and people,” the Rabbinical Assembly statement said. 

“Conservative conversions are valid under Israel’s own laws, for the purpose of study, immigration and citizenship,” it continued. “The Interior Ministry should immediately grant Kimani a student visa, so that he can visit and learn in our Holy City and continue to grow in his Jewish identity.”

In late December, Kimani arrived in Israel with plans to study at another, shorter-term program offered by the Conservative yeshiva. But no sooner had he landed than he was detained for questioning, despite having a valid tourist visa in his possession. After being held overnight, Kimani was sent back on a plane to Kenya the following morning.

The Interior Ministry said at the time that Kimani was deported because he hadn’t bothered to inform the Israeli Embassy in Nairobi that a previous visa application had been rejected. A few weeks later, at an emergency committee meeting in the Knesset, a senior Interior Ministry official provided a different explanation for the decision. He said Kimani had been deported because he entered Israel on a tourist visa when he should have requested a student visa, because his plan had been to spend his time in the country studying at a yeshiva.

Leaders of the Conservative movement have charged that Kimani is a victim of discrimination and that he was deported because he was black, and also because he underwent a non-Orthodox conversion.

The Abayudaya began practicing Judaism about 100 years ago, but its members have only undergone official conversions – mainly by the Conservative movement – over the past 15 years. Kimani was converted in 2010.

The Law of Return allows any individual who has converted to Judaism to immigrate to Israel and receive Israeli citizenship, provided he or she has been converted in a recognized Jewish community.

In April 2016, the Jewish Agency ruled that the Abayudaya is a recognized Jewish community. In theory, then, any member of that community is eligible to immigrate to Israel, not to mention visit the country. However, the Interior Ministry has the final say in such matters and has yet to accept the Abayudaya as a recognized Jewish community for immigration purposes.

Conservative movement leaders have come to regard Kimani as a test case for recognition of their conversions in Israel. They deliberately decided to submit an application for a student visa on his behalf, knowing that if it were rejected, their case against the Interior Ministry would be strengthened.

Outgoing Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky has promised to take on the Abayudaya’s cause with the ministry.