Conservative movement to petition court after refusal to recognize Ugandan Jews

Rabbi Andrew Sacks accuses interior minister of ‘placing political considerations above the law’ and trying to block their immigration to Israel

Illustrative: A Ugandan Abayudaya Jew leans forward to touch a Torah scroll carried by Enosh Keki Mainah (left) during Shabbat services at the synagogue in Nabugoya, Uganda, on March 3, 2002. (AP Photo/Sayyid Azim/File)
Illustrative: A Ugandan Abayudaya Jew leans forward to touch a Torah scroll carried by Enosh Keki Mainah (left) during Shabbat services at the synagogue in Nabugoya, Uganda, on March 3, 2002. (AP Photo/Sayyid Azim/File)

The Conservative movement in Israel said Sunday that it would appeal the state’s decision not to recognize Uganda’s tiny Jewish community for the purposes of immigration.

Rabbi Andrew Sacks, the director of the Conservative Movement’s Rabbinical Assembly in Israel, told The Times of Israel he will soon file a petition to the High Court of Justice on behalf of Kibita Yosef, a Ugandan Jew seeking to immigrate to Israel.

Sacks told the Haaretz daily on Sunday that Conservatives were “preparing any and all legal methods to see that justice is achieved,” and blasted the interior minister for “placing political considerations above the law.”

The Masorti movement’s Rabbi Andrew Sacks regularly consults and visits ’emerging’ Jewish communities around the globe. (Facebook)

On Thursday, Haaretz reported the Interior Ministry ruled not to recognize the conversions of Ugandan Jews for the purposes of immigrating to Israel. The government made the ruling in the case of Yosef, but reportedly said the decision reflected Israel’s stance on the Ugandan Jewish community, not just applicant in question.

The ministry reportedly ordered Yosef, who is staying at a kibbutz in southern Israel, to leave the country by June 14, when his tourist visa expires, or face deportation. However, the ministry did say that Yosef could challenge its decision in the High Court.

The Uganda community, also called the Abayudaya, numbers approximately 2,000, and traces its roots to the early 20th century, when a former leader read the Bible and embraced Judaism. Most members were converted under the auspices of US Conservative rabbis and thus are not recognized as Jewish by Israel’s mostly ultra-Orthodox Chief Rabbinate.

In 2016, the Jewish Agency for Israel recognized the community for the purposes of the Law of Return, seemingly opening a path for its members to immigrate to Israel. However, the Abuyudaya have struggled to obtain recognition to do so. In December, Israel denied a visa application by a member of the community to study at a yeshiva in Israel, leading to accusations of racism.

The decision regarding Yosef was met with outrage by the Conservative movement, who called the it a “slap in the face.” In a Facebook post on Friday, the group said that upholding religious pluralism “must be of paramount importance to Israel.”

Rabbi Gershom, second left, prepares to read the Torah during a Shabbat service among the Abayudaya Jewish community, in a village near Mbale, eastern Uganda, July 2, 2016. (AFP/Michael O’Hagan)

Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, who leads the Rabbinical Assembly, told JTA last week the Conservative movement was “shocked and extremely outraged” at the Israeli government decision, which she called “unlawful.”

She noted that the conversions were done in accordance with Jewish law, making the African Jewish community eligible to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return. Schonfeld warned the decision undermines the authority of the Jewish Agency, and could have a knock-on effect for other converts in Israel.

Marissa Newman contributed to this report.

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