Ugandan Jews Make Stride in Gaining Formal Recognition From Israel

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

A community of Jewish converts in Africa has won an important concession in its struggle to gain formal recognition from the State of Israel. 

In an official letter sent to a leader of the Conservative movement in Israel, the Jewish Agency has ruled that the Abayudaya Jews of Uganda are a “recognized” community. Only converts from officially recognized communities are eligible for citizenship in Israel under the Law of Return.

The Abayudaya 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. Since 2009, the community has had its own rabbi.

For several years, requests by members of the Abayudaya community to study in Israel or to immigrate to the country had been held up because of questions of their status as a community.

The Ministry of Interior, the authority charged with approving requests for immigration and other visas, typically relies on recommendations and rulings from the Jewish Agency when the status of a community is unclear. In some cases, however, it has overruled the Jewish Agency.

In its recent letter to Rabbi Andrew Sacks, director of the Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative movement in Israel, the Jewish Agency confirms that “as of 2009, we view the Abayudaya in Uganda as a recognized community registered with the Masorti-Olami world Conservative movement.” The letter also states that the Jewish Agency recognizes the authority of the community’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Gershom Sizomu, who was ordained by the Conservative movement.

The letter was signed by Yehuda Scharf, director of the Jewish Agency’s immigration division.

As most of the members of the Abayudaya community were converted before 2009, it is not clear if and how the Jewish Agency recommendation will apply in practice.

“I am still intent on bringing a group of students here in June, and I’m hoping it will happen,” said Sacks.

Several years ago, Sacks had tried to bring a group of half a dozen young Jews from Uganda on a study abroad program in Israel, which would have included two months at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem. According to Ministry of Interior regulations, only Jews are eligible to participate in programs offered by non-degree conferring institutions, such as yeshivas, and they must obtain special student visas confirming their status in order to enroll. The Ministry of Interior has thus far held off issuing these visas for the Ugandan Jews. 

“It’s strange because we also have Jews from England and South America participating in the same program, but they’re allowed to come here with tourist visas and change their visas here,” said Sacks. “The Ugandans, though, were told that they must receive their student visas in advance.”

Asked how the Ministry of Interior viewed the ruling of the Jewish Agency, a spokeswoman said: “Since this is an issue of policy, it has been passed on to those who make policy decisions. We are awaiting responses.”

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

In a related development, the first member of the community to request permission to immigrate to Israel was contacted by the Jewish Agency this week and asked if he was still interested in moving. Mugoya Shadrach Levi had applied for citizenship under the Law of Return about five years ago but never received a response from the Ministry of Interior. 

The Conservative movement said it views this effort to reach out to him by the Jewish Agency as a hopeful sign. 

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