Ugandan Jew denied visa to study at yeshiva in Israel
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Ugandan Jew denied visa to study at yeshiva in Israel

Abayudaya community, many of whose members were converted by American Conservative rabbis, have been repeatedly rejected as Jews by the Interior Ministry

In September 2018, members of the Ugandan Jewish community participated in its first Birthright trip. Asiimwe Rabbin is in the foreground, center. (Birthright Israel via JTA)
In September 2018, members of the Ugandan Jewish community participated in its first Birthright trip. Asiimwe Rabbin is in the foreground, center. (Birthright Israel via JTA)

A Jewish man from Uganda who led a Birthright trip to Israel in September was denied a visa to study at an Israeli yeshiva.

Asiimwe Rabbin, 28, had intended to participate in a program at the Conservative yeshiva in Jerusalem, but was told this week he would not get the required visa because Israel’s Interior Ministry does not recognize his community as Jewish, Haaretz reported. Last month, Rabbin led the first-ever Birthright trip for Jews from Uganda.

The visa is supposed to be available to people who qualify for Israeli citizenship through the Law of Return — which applies to anyone who has at least one Jewish grandparent, converted to Judaism or is married to a Jew.

Despite the fact that the Ugandan Jewish community, also called the Abayudaya, was recognized by the Jewish Agency for Israel in 2016, members have faced difficulties obtaining visas to enter the country.

Rabbin’s program is sponsored by Masa, which brings young Jews from around the world to participate in programs in Israel. The organization’s executive director, Liran Avisar Ben-Horin, told Haaretz that it had to heed the Interior Ministry’s rulings regarding visas.

“As Masa is subject to conditions set by the Interior Ministry in this regard, we were forced to turn down his request for a Masa visa,” she said.

The Ugandan community traces its roots to the early 20th century, when a former leader read the Bible and embraced Judaism. The Abayudaya have been adhering to Judaism for a century. They observe Shabbat — the Jewish day of rest — and practice ritual circumcision. Their worship combines traditional Hebrew liturgy with African melodies, and they profess to have a deep connection to Israel and fellow Jewish people.

Most underwent official conversion by Conservative rabbis between 2002 and 2008, and thus qualify for immigration under the Law of Return but are not recognized as Jewish by Israel’s mostly ultra-Orthodox Chief Rabbinate.

Today the community, which is based in the rural town of Mbale, has seven synagogues — including a 7,000-square-foot center that opened in 2016 — a mikvah and two Jewish schools.

But the Interior Ministry refuses to accept the Abayudaya as Jewish for the purposes of immigration, and has rejected dozens of visa applications by members of the community seeking to study in Israel. In June, Israel denied the immigration request of a Ugandan Jew, prompting outcry from the community’s rabbi and leaders of the Conservative movement as well as accusations of racism. Last year, Israel denied another visa application by a member of the community to study at the Conservative yeshiva.

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