Ugandan Convert to Judaism Becomes Test Case for Law of Return

Uganda's Abuyudaya have no Jewish ancestry. The group converted to Judaism under Conservative rabbis in 2002 and now Israel is weighing one member's eligibility for immigration.

Mugoya Shadrach Levi is an unemployed 25-year-old bachelor from the tiny Ugandan village of Namutumba. But for leaders of non-Orthodox Jewry in Israel, he could become the next symbol of their struggle to determine who is a Jew in this country.

Levi submitted a request to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return in April and he is currently waiting for a decision.

While the government receives thousands of similar requests each year, Levi's case is a precedent. He is the first member of the Uganda's 1,500-strong Abuyudaya Jewish community to express interest in moving to Israel.

According to the Law of Return, if Israel recognizes you as a Jew you are eligible for automatic citizenship and for a package of financial benefits upon immigration.

The Abuyudaya community split from Christianity in the early 20th century when they began identifying as Jews and observing Jewish laws and customs. In 2002, a rabbinical court sent to Uganda by the Conservative movement formally converted most of the community, including Levi.

Unlike most other remote Jewish communities, the Abuyudaya do not claim and are not known to have any Jewish roots. Therefore, as non-Orthodox Jewish leaders see it, much hinges on whether the government decides to accept Levi’s immigration request. Whichever way it goes, the decision will deliver an important message about the legitimacy of conversions performed by non-Orthodox rabbis.

Levi’s request to immigrate under the Law of Return is being seen as a test case, which, if approved, could encourage other members of the Abuyudaya, a community spread out in five villages in Uganda, to follow suit. It could also have bearing on the status of other African tribes that claim Jewish ancestry, among them the Lemba of southern Africa and the Igbo of Nigeria.

The Interior Ministry told Haaretz in a statement that “this is the first time we have received a request to recognize, under the Law of Return, conversions performed abroad (whether Orthodox or non-Orthodox) of an entire tribe that has no Jewish roots. The issue is under consideration.”

Under current immigration procedures, applicants are expected to spend nine months as active members of their local Jewish communities after they have completed the conversion process – regardless of what type of conversion they have undergone – before they move to Israel. During this interim period, their applications are reviewed by the Interior Ministry. Since the ministry does not have emissaries abroad, it typically relies on recommendations from the Jewish Agency to ascertain the validity of a conversion.

Once the Interior Ministry recognizes their status as Jews, prospective immigrants are allowed into Israel. However, even though the state may recognize them as Jews, they are not automatically considered Jewish by the Chief Rabbinate. The discrepancy between the government's definition and the religious establishment's definition has a ramification on ability of immigrants to get married. The Rabbinate bars immigrants who have not undergone an Orthodox Jewish conversion from getting married. It has the power to demand a strict conversion because in Israel all marriages are governed by religious law, and not civil institutions. The Law of Return also recognizes as Jewish for the purpose of immigration individuals who have at least one Jewish grandparent, even though these individuals are not necessarily recognized as Jewish by the Rabbinate.

Nearly 100 Peruvians, who have been dubbed the “Jews of the Amazon” recently immigrated to Israel after undergoing Conservative conversions. Unlike the Abuyudayas, however, most of the Peruvians have some ancient Jewish ancestry. They are descendants of Moroccan Jews who immigrated to South America in the 19th century and intermarried with locals. But even though they are recognized as “seed of Israel,” a term for people with known Jewish roots, the Ministry of Interior delayed decision on their immigration requests for months, eventually bowing to pressure from the Jewish Agency.

In another similar case, the government recently approved the immigration of hundreds of members of the Bnei Menashe community from India. The Bnei Menashe are an indigenous group who claim to descend from one of the lost tribes of Israel. When they arrived in Israel, members of the group were required to undergo Orthodox conversions, much like the Falashmura Ethiopians who came to Israel earlier than them. The Falashmura community was pressured to convert to Christianity in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Levi spoke to Haaretz on Skype from Uganda about his reasons for applying to immigrate to Israel.

“I want to learn more about Judaism and be part of our Holy Land,” he said, adding that he would be disappointed if his request were rejected.

Last year, another member of the Abuyudaya came to Israel to study at the Conservative movement's yeshiva in Jerusalem but has since returned to Uganda.

Rabbi Andrew Sacks, who was a member of the rabbinical court that converted Levi and is now the director of the Masorti-Conservative movement rabbinical assembly in Israel said: "The Abuyudaya, not only live Jewishly - they are Jewish. I welcome the examination by the Interior Ministry as an opportunity for their acceptance as a recognized community.”