Jewish Leaders to Israel: Don’t Reject Venezuelan Converts

Jewish Agency head Sharansky considers intervening on would-be immigrants' behalf.

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
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People wait to cross the border into Colombia at a checkpoint in Urena, Venezuela, on December 18, 2016.
People wait to cross the border into Colombia at a checkpoint in Urena, Venezuela, on December 18, 2016.Credit: Carlos Becerra/Bloomberg
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

Prominent Jewish world figures from across the religious spectrum responded with outrage to the Interior Ministry’s decision to ban nine Venezuelan converts from immigrating to Israel.

As reported in Haaretz on Monday, the ministry notified the Venezuelans, all of whom were converted three years ago by a Conservative rabbinical court, that they could not move to Israel because, despite evidence to the contrary, they were not actively engaged in Jewish communal life

The nine converts, who come from a rural part of Venezuela, have been facing shortages of food and medicine as the situation in their country deteriorates.

“This is just the latest example of how Israel’s Chief Rabbinate and religious extremists are leading Israel down a dangerous path of religious fundamentalism,” said Rabbi Steven Wernick, chief executive officer of The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

“This is what happens without religious pluralism,” he said. “All these issues are connected – the Kotel, marriage, divorce, adoption, burial and conversion.”

The interior minister is Arye Dery, leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party.

Meanwhile, Natan Sharansky, the chairman of the Jewish Agency, is said to be considering intervening on behalf of the nine Venezuelans.

“Sharansky is looking into the details of this case with the relevant people in our aliyah department,” said a senior Jewish Agency official.

When reviewing requests to immigrate to Israel, the Ministry of Interior usually consults with the Jewish Agency and relies on its recommendations. In this case, it did not.

Gillian Caplin, president of Masorti Olami – the world Conservative movement, which represents many Jewish communities in Latin America – said she was “angry and disappointed” by the Israeli government’s decision.

“At a time when we are seeing rising anti-Semitism across the world and when Israel is seen as the beacon of hope and light for all Jews, the idea that vulnerable, desperate Jews are being turned away is a terrible concept and one that cannot be ignored by Jews everywhere,” said Caplin, who is based in London.

The nine Venezuelan applicants are members of three families from the small rural town of Maracay, where no recognized Jewish community exists. Following three years of study, they were converted in early 2014 and then joined a synagogue in Valencia, a recognized Jewish community about an hour’s drive away, where they have been active members ever since.

Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple, a large Conservative congregation in Los Angeles, described the Interior Ministry’s decision as “shameful.”

“When Jews are turned away from refuge because of the strictures of the Chief Rabbinate,” said Wolpe, considered one of the most influential rabbis in America, “it reminds us that even the deepest Jewish value, pikuach nefesh [preservation of human life], is corrupted by the pettiness induced by power.”

According to the Law of Return, which determines eligibility for immigration, Jews of choice who wish to move to Israel are required to have undergone conversion in a “recognized Jewish community” – one with a full-time rabbi and an active synagogue. They must then spend at least nine months actively engaged in Jewish communal life in a recognized Jewish community before they can move to Israel. Where no “recognized Jewish community” exists, as in this particular case, the Interior Ministry requires a longer period of engagement in Jewish communal life following the conversion.

When determining the eligibility of converts, the Law of Return does not distinguish between those converted by Orthodox, Conservative or Reform rabbis. In practice, though, applications submitted by Orthodox converts tend to be approved more easily.

Rabbi Reuven Hammer, former president of the International Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative movement, said the decision reveals a “hidden agenda” to discriminate against non-Orthodox converts.

Rabbi Arthur Green, the provost of the rabbinical school at Boston’s Hebrew College, a pluralistic institution, expressed shock at the Ministry of Interior ruling. “I would think that this government's relationship with the large majority of Diaspora Jews is bad enough, without this conduct adding fuel to the fire,” he said. “At least as seen from our point of view, the suspicion of underlying racism is very strong.”

Daniel Askenazi, the spiritual leader of the Jewish community of Barranquilla, Colombia, said that as an Orthodox rabbi, he was no less outraged by the behavior of the Israeli government. “It is time to open our eyes,” he said. “These people, regardless of the denomination of their conversions, decided to unite their destiny to that of our people.

"The Nazis persecuted converts to Judaism as 100 percent Jews no matter how ‘Aryan’ they were before. It is our duty as Jews to raise our voices and demand that the State of Israel that was created with the aim of serving as a refuge for the Jewish people in times of catastrophe fulfill this role and expedite the adsorption of these people.”

Rabbi Asher Lopatin, a prominent modern Orthodox rabbi from New York, had raised the plight of the Venezuelan converts at a recent meeting held in the Knesset. Warning that the Interior Ministry’s decision sets a dangerous precedent, he urged Jews of all persuasion to “unite in stopping the disastrous road harming Israel and imperiling all Jews outside of Israel.”

Another Orthodox rabbi who condemned the decision was Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, the founder and director of the International Fellowship for Christians and Jews – an evangelical-funded organization that in recent years has focused on promoting immigration to Israel.

“There’s absolutely no doubt in my mind that these conversions were halakhically valid and these people should be allowed to immigrate,” he said.



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