Virtually unknown until a few weeks ago, a Kenyan Jew by choice is about to become the poster boy of the Jewish Conservative movement in its struggle to obtain recognition for its conversions in Israel.
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Last year, Yehudah Kimani, 31, obtained a visa to spend three weeks studying in the Conservative yeshiva in Jerusalem, starting in late December. But when he landed at Ben Gurion Airport on December 18, he was detained overnight and deported back to Africa the following morning.
Interior Ministry officials insist that Kimani was deported not because he was black or because he underwent a non-Orthodox conversion, as his sponsors in Israel claim. They say it was because of a simple procedural issue: He applied for the wrong type of visa.
Leaders of the world Conservative movement say they have decided to call the ministry’s bluff. Early next week, the movement will reapply for a visa on Kimani’s behalf, so he can spend the winter semester at the Conservative yeshiva. This time, though, they will request a student visa rather than a tourist one.
Why a student visa? Because applicants planning to study at yeshivas (or any other nondegree-conferring institutes of higher education) are only approved for student visas if they are recognized by the Interior Ministry as Jewish. Non-Jews, meanwhile, are eligible for tourist visas for periods of up to three months.
Kimani (who was born Francis Kimani Njogu) is a member of the Abayudaya community, which is based in eastern Uganda. 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 the 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 it has yet to accept the Abayudaya as a recognized Jewish community for the purpose of the Law of Return.
At a special committee session in the Knesset on Wednesday, a senior Interior Ministry official said he would reconsider allowing Kimani into Israel, but only if he applied for a tourist visa.
After deliberating for several days, leaders of the Conservative movement decided to reject this offer and instead use Kimani as a test case to prove that, despite claims to the contrary, Israel does discriminate against its converts.
“We have decided we cannot be bullied into an Interior Ministry resolution that doesn’t make sense,” Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, told Haaretz. “By asking us to apply for a tourist visa on Yehudah’s behalf, they are trying to get around accepting our conversions and denying Yehudah’s right to study in a yeshiva in Jerusalem,” he said.
Wernick added that applying for a tourist visa on Kimani’s behalf is not even an option any longer, explaining that the three-week program in which Kimani had originally been enrolled is about to end. The new plan is to enroll him in a semester-long program, which begins at the end of this month and for which Kimani has no other option but to request a student visa because of its lengthier duration.
Kimani’s flight and tuition to Israel had been paid for by Justin Philips, a retired judge from Britain who now lives in Jerusalem and is active in the Conservative movement. Philips also put up thousands of dollars in bond money to guarantee that Kimani would not overstay his three-month visa.
Kimani’s visa had been approved and signed by Israel’s ambassador to Nairobi, Noah Gal Gendler. Originally, the Interior Ministry said Kimani had been deported because he hadn’t bothered to inform the embassy that a previous visa request had been rejected, and “because of concerns that he would stay here.” But in the Knesset session on Wednesday, Amos Arbel, director of the Interior Ministry’s Population Registry and Status Department, provided a different reason. He said Kimani had been deported because he had applied for a tourist visa when he should have applied for a student one, since the purpose of his visit was to study in Israel.
He then suggested, in private conversations with Israeli lawmakers after the session, that Kimani reapply for a tourist visa and not mention in his request that the purpose of his trip was to study in Israel.
Conservative movement leaders pointed out to Arbel during the session that Kimani did not apply for a student visa because he knew such a request would have been automatically rejected. This is because the Interior Ministry does not recognize members of the Abayudaya community as Jewish, and only individuals recognized as Jewish are eligible for student visas that allow them to enroll in yeshivas.
Conservative movement leaders are aware that Kimani’s request for a student visa will likely be rejected. They hope, however, that his case will draw public attention to the discrimination they say converts affiliated with the Conservative movement, especially those of color, face in Israel.