Ugandan Converts Forced to Cancel Study Program at Yeshiva in Israel

They can’t study in Conservative yeshiva because gov’t has yet to rule if they’re Jews.

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Ugandan convert Moses Sebagago, right, participating in a Hebrew language class.
Ugandan convert Moses Sebagago, right, participating in a Hebrew language class. Credit: Emil Salman

A group of Ugandan Jews invited to study at the Conservative yeshiva in Jerusalem has been forced to cancel its plans because of questions raised by the government about the legitimacy of non-Orthodox conversions performed abroad.

About 20 members of the Abuyudaya community in Uganda had planned on spending a year studying in Israel, as part of a program sponsored by the Jewish Agency and Marom Olami, the world organization for young adults affiliated with the Conservative movement.

According to Ministry of Interior regulations, only Jews are eligible for the special student visas required for participation in programs offered by non-degree conferring institutions, such as yeshivas. (Students in programs offered by degree-conferring institutions, such as universities, do not need to prove they are Jewish to obtain visas.) A request to allow the Ugandans to receive the required student visas was submitted more than a year ago, but because it has still not been approved, the applicants will not be able to come to Israel to start the upcoming school year here.

The Abuyudaya community split from Christianity in the early 20th century when its members 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 1,500-strong community.

The Ministry of Interior, in issuing visas and approving citizenship requests for converts, typically relies on the recommendations of the Jewish Agency. Representatives of the Jewish Agency already provided their stamp of approval many months ago for this particular group.

Rabbi Andrew Sacks, director of the Rabbinical Assembly in Israel of the Conservative/Masorti movement, said the sponsors of the Abuyudaya group were willing, as part of a test case, to reduce the number of participants to just a handful. To date, however, the Ministry of Interior has not been willing to approve visas even for a smaller group.

Two years ago, a member of the Abuyudaya community did spend a year studying at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem and has since returned to Uganda.

In response to a query from Haaretz, Ministry of Interior spokeswoman Sabine Hadad said the following: “The issue is now under investigation. Every new issue that we need to learn requires time and the Jewish Agency is just one factor in the process.”

In a related development, another member of the Abuyudaya community has been waiting for almost a year and a half for the Interior Ministry to approve his request to immigrate under the Law of Return. Mugoya Shadrach Levi, 26, is the first member of the community to express interest in moving to Israel.

Unlike most other remote Jewish communities – for example, the so-called “Jews of the Amazon” from Peru and the Bnei Menashe from India – the Abuyudaya do not claim and are not known to have any Jewish roots. How the Interior Ministry rules on their requests to be recognized as Jews for the purpose of visiting and immigrating to Israel will deliver an important message about the legitimacy of conversions performed by non-Orthodox rabbis.

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