A green light has been given for the first-ever group of Ugandan Jews to participate in a Birthright trip to Israel – even though Israel’s Ministry of Interior still refuses to recognize them as Jewish.
The group of 40 Ugandans, all members of the Abayudaya community, is scheduled to land in Israel in late May on a trip organized by Marom Olami, the young adult division of the world Conservative movement.
The Abayudaya began practicing Judaism about 100 years ago but were only officially converted in recent years. Most of the conversions were performed by Conservative rabbis.
The Jewish Agency considers the Abayudaya a recognized Jewish community, but the Minister of Interior does not.
The Birthright trip, which has been in the planning for two years, was almost called off last month, after the Ministry of Interior deported a member of the Abayudaya community. Yehudah Kimani, a convert from Kenya who had planned to study in the Consevative yeshiva in Jerusalem, was detained overnight at Ben Gurion International Airport before being flown back the next morning. Birthright officials were concerned that participants in their program might meet a similar fate.
On Wednesday, Jewish Agency officials received a letter from the Ministry of Interior indicating that it had no intention of barring the Ugandan Birthright participants from Israel.
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The letter, written by Amos Arbel, head of the registry and status department at the Ministry of Interior, noted that “the Population Authority is not responsible for and does not supervise the Birthright program and those who come to Israel on it and with its consent.”
Jewish Agency officials took this to mean that the Ministry of Interior will not present any problems for the group. The letter did note, however, that participants in Birthright trips are not automatically approved for immigration to Israel under the Law of Return, which determines eligibility.
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.
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 a group this size was coming.