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Fighting for the Rights of the Abayudaya Jewish Community

Fighting for the Rights of the Abayudaya Jewish Community

Image of Yosef Kibita a young and smiling black man in a purple kippah

This month, as our partners in the US are mobilizing to fight cruel and unjust immigration policies, we at the Israel Religious Action Center are joining the struggle from Israel. We are proud to represent Yosef Kibita, a 31-year-old convert from Uganda. He is a member of the Abayudaya Jewish community, an entire community of converts to Judaism. Yosef is under threat of deportation from Israel because the Israeli government has decided not to recognize the Abayudaya community as Jewish.

The Abayudaya community has been practicing Judaism for nearly 100 years. In 2008, the head of the community, Gershom Sizomu, came to the USA to officially convert under the auspices of the Conservative movement in 2008. The entire community then underwent a conversion, and was recognized as part of the Conservative movement in 2009. As of today, most of the 2,000 members of the community have converted.

Yosef grew up as a Jew. He was a leader in his Jewish community in Uganda, and was committed to Jewish practice at home and in his synagogue. He underwent two formal conversions to Judaism, just to ensure there would be no confusion about his being Jewish. He came to Israel for the first time two years ago to study at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem, and now lives and volunteers on Kibbutz Ketura, a kibbutz in southern Israel that is affiliated with the Conservative movement.

With the help of LACO, the Israel Religious Action Center's Legal Aid Center for Olim, Yosef applied to be recognized as a Jew and receive his equal rights as an oleh, a new immigrant. Two weeks ago, Yosef was informed that his request to make aliyah (move to Israel) was denied. He was ordered to leave Israel immediately, because the Interior Ministry refuses to recognize his community as Jewish under the Law of Return. Thanks to LACO's quick work, the Supreme Court issued a temporary injunction against his deportation - just in the nick of time.

LACO specializes in helping Reform and Conservative converts from around the world achieve full equality and recognition if they choose to make Israel their home. We have helped thousands of converts over the decades, and are now helping Yosef. 

I am sorry to say that the Interior Ministry often places bureaucratic hurdles in the way of those who choose to be Jewish and wish to make aliyah. Our experience also indicates that the Ministry puts extra barriers before converts of color. The Ministry's treatment of Yosef, and the Abayudaya community, is a new low in an already troubling pattern.

Now for the good news: while the Minister of Interior, who is a member of the ultra-Orthodox party, Shas, may stomp his feet until he is red in the face, the law is on Yosef's side. We have blocked Yosef's deportation and we will make sure that he and the Abayudaya community - our brothers and sisters - are welcome in Israel like all other Jews. We will not accept racism, and we will fight justice in immigration.

Anat Hoffman is the executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center, the public and legal advocacy arm of the Reform Jewish Movement in Israel. She is also the chairwoman of Women of the Wall, a group of Jewish women and men from around the world who strive to achieve the right of women to wear prayer shawls, pray, and read from the Torah collectively and out loud at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

Anat Hoffman
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