African-American Converts Finally Recognized as Jews in Israel

After challenging validity of non-Orthodox conversions, Interior Ministry backs down in legal fight.

Nir Keidar

Ending a drawn-out legal battle, the Interior Ministry has agreed to recognize a large African-American family of converts as citizens of Israel.

It is the first case in which the Interior Ministry had challenged the validity of a conversion performed abroad by a rabbi in a recognized Jewish community.  Israeli law requires the government to recognize as Jewish, for the purpose of immigration, anyone converted abroad by a rabbi in a recognized congregation, regardless of its affiliation. But for the past several years, the ministry has cast doubts on the Jewish credentials of the Mosely family, which moved to Israel from Kansas.

The Mosleys had been converted in 2008 by Arthur Nemitoff, the senior rabbi at Congregation Bnei Jehuda in Overland Park, Kansas. In 2011, the entire 13-member family – a mother, her two sons, their spouses and children – moved to the southern coastal town of Ashkelon, where they have since been active members of Congregation Netzach Israel, a Conservative-Masorti synagogue. Several new children were born to the family since the move.

The Mosleys had initially tried to seek Jewish Agency approval for their immigration so that they could arrive in Israel as full-fledged citizens. The Law of Return provides automatic citizenship to all Jews who are recognized as such, including converts. But after months of not receiving any response from the Jewish Agency, they decided to move on their own on tourist visas, in the hope of obtaining recognition as Jews once they arrived.

In late 2012, after their tourist visas had expired, the Mosleys were notified by the Interior Ministry that their request to obtain citizenship under the Law of Return had been denied and were ordered to leave the country.  Seeing this as a test case for the validity of conversions performed abroad, the non-Orthodox movements in Israel took up their cause. Leading the fight were Rabbi Andrew Sacks, the director of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly in Israel, and the Israel Religious Action Center, the advocacy arm of the Reform movement in the country, which appealed against the Interior Ministry ruling to the High Court of Justice.

In response, the High Court last year requested that the Interior Ministry explain its criteria for accepting and rejecting conversions performed abroad. At first, the ministry said it would agree to provide the Mosleys with temporary visas for four years, but representatives of the non-Orthodox movements rejected the offer. Last month, the Interior Ministry notified the High Court that it had reneged and would agree to recognize the Mosleys as Jews under the Law of Return.

“This family suffered after undergoing a conversion that met all the requirements of Israeli law,” said Sacks in response. “They were left to fend for themselves. Had they not had good legal representation, they would continue to fend for themselves.”

Terri Davis, the overseas coordinator at Netzach Israel, noted that the Mosleys attend Shabbat services at the synagogue every week and have received considerable financial support from the congregation since they could not legally work until now. “We’ve provided them with food coupons and packages,” she noted, “and we’ve paid for their medical services since they were not eligible for government-provided healthcare insurance.”

In recent years, African-American converts have come under intense scrutiny by Interior Ministry officials over concerns about possible ties to the Black Hebrew Israelites – a community of African Americans in Dimona, most of them originally from Chicago, who maintain they are descendants of the Tribe of Judah but are not recognized as Jews by the state. 

Asked to comment on the case last year, the Interior Ministry said the family’s request was rejected because of “serious doubts” raised, based on material presented to representatives of the Population Registry “about their conversion process and its purpose.”