Decision Nears For Status Of A Ugandan Community
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Decision Nears For Status Of A Ugandan Community

Will the Abayudaya, who have practiced Judaism for a century, be recognized as Jews by Israel?

Yosef Kibita, Shoshanna Nambi, Shadrach Levi and Rabbi Gershom Sizomu, spiritual leader of the Abayudaya community. Lev Gringauz/JW
Yosef Kibita, Shoshanna Nambi, Shadrach Levi and Rabbi Gershom Sizomu, spiritual leader of the Abayudaya community. Lev Gringauz/JW

As the Interior Ministry of Israel sees it, Yosef Kibita isn’t a real Jew and should have been deported months ago.

Kibita, 3l, is a member of the Abayudaya Ugandan Jewish community, which has been practicing Judaism for a century. He and most of the community formally converted over the course of the early 2000s. formally converted over the course of the 2000s. In March of 2018, he fulfilled a dream and applied to make aliyah – to immigrate to Israel as a Jew.

“Our Judaism started far away in 1919, and I don’t think that those people started it having the mindset that they want to live in Israel,” Kibita said. But for the younger generation, “we have that dream. We want to live in the land where we believe we belong.”

The Interior Ministry, however, refuses to recognize the Abayudaya’s conversions and accept them as Jewish. In May, it rejected Kibita’s application.

Since then, Kibita has been in limbo with no visa and no legal status, waiting for the Israeli Supreme Court to hear his petition challenging the Interior Ministry’s decision not to recognize him as Jewish.

After delays over the last several months, the ministry now has until Dec. 30 to respond to the petition. If the response is not satisfactory to the court, a hearing will be scheduled and a ruling administered.

“I don’t know my tomorrow, I don’t know my next week, I don’t know my next year,” Kibita said, speaking by phone from Kibbutz Keturah in the south of Israel, where he currently resides.

“I don’t know what will happen. I don’t know whether they’ll cancel my aliyah, and then [I’ll] have to go back to zero and start again, start life again.”

Though the future is uncertain, Kibita knows he is part of a bigger fight for his community, which has survived aggressive 20th century missionary activity and persecution at the hands of Idi Amin, Uganda’s brutal dictator in the 1970s.

“This is not all about making aliyah, like everybody coming to Israel,” he said. “This is about having that spiritual pride that yes, we are Jewish and we are known.”

The stakes are high. If the court rules that Kibita’s Jewish conversion is valid, it will mean recognition for the entire Abayudaya community and an end to a years-long saga of delegitimization at the hands of the Israeli government.

Pushed Around

Shoshanna Nambi, 30, was 14 years old when a group of Masorti (Conservative) Jewish rabbis visited her Ugandan town of Mbale, home to many of the Abayudaya, to facilitate the official conversion of the community to Judaism in 2002.

Together with her grandparents and brothers, she stood before the panel of rabbis that had officially convened as a beit din, the court of Jewish law, and answered questions about Jewish rituals, observance, and prayer. Approved by the court, and after the men had been ritually circumcised, Nambi and her family sealed their conversions by dipping into the mikveh, the Jewish ritual bath.

Yosef Kibita at the Western Wall. Lev Gringauz/JW

“The whole community did the conversion and, to tell you the truth, I didn’t know what the purpose of the conversion was,” she said. As far as Nambi was concerned, after many decades of the Abayudaya keeping kosher, observing Shabbat and other Jewish holidays, reading the Torah, and praying daily, “nothing had changed.”

At the time, no one in the community thought that Israel would reject them. “We knew Israel just like any other Jew knows Israel; everybody loves Israel,” Nambi said. There were few indications of future friction with the Jewish state.

But as the Abayudaya grew from a few hundred members in 2002 to roughly 2,000 members now, the younger generation became more interested in visiting Israel. They wanted to experience the modern country and study Judaism at institutions like the Conservative Yeshiva and the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, which provide intensive text-based Jewish learning in Jerusalem.

Nambi, having graduated from the University of Kampala in 2011 and worked for the next several years, was similarly inspired to study in Israel. She wanted to be a rabbi.

As luck would have it, Jews outside of Israel between the ages of 18-30 are given the opportunity to spend anywhere from five months to a year in Israel through the Jewish Agency for Israel project, Masa Israel. It  provides participants with a variety of structured educational and social service programs and, most importantly, funding, without which living in Israel would be financially out of reach to many Jewish young adults. Nambi applied and received an A2 student visa to Israel and the promise of funding for a year of study at Pardes.

But once in Israel in the fall of 2017, Nambi was thrown for a loop and abandoned.

Masa asked for Nambi’s visa to approve her funding. Then they told her it was the wrong kind of student visa, because she needed a special Masa visa. So Nambi went to the Interior Ministry to change her visa.

The ministry told her to go to the Jewish Agency, the quasi-governmental organization and one of the largest non-profits operating in Israel, to ask them for a Masa visa. Since Masa is a joint venture between the Jewish Agency and the Israeli government, it made sense to assume they would be able to get the appropriate visa for Nambi.

But as Nambi was waiting to get her special Masa visa, Masa admitted that “the problem is really not the visa, the problem is we do not recognize you as Jewish to give you the money,’” she said she was told. Masa follows the Interior Ministry when recognizing who is and isn’t Jewish.

“I was already here. I had no money,” Nambi said. And to make matters worse, “I checked with a lot of students [who had Masa funding] and they had the same visa as me. I just did not know what was going on.”

When reached for comment, Masa did not clarify whether a special Masa visa is necessary for participants to get funding, or whether the special visa even exists.

On their website, Masa only specifies that “the Masa Israel visa is an A2 visa – a multiple-entry student visa.” The A2 student visa – which Nambi was given by the Israeli embassy in Nairobi, Kenya – is a regular student visa, according to the website of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The ministry does not list any kind of special Masa visa.

Pardes managed to fundraise enough money to support Nambi, but “it was a really tough year of studying,” Nambi said, now a rabbinical student and back in Israel for the 2018-2019 academic year as part of her studies at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

“Limbo is the right word,” she said, adding: “Masa said ‘we’ll take care of you.’ They did not take care of me.”

Shadrach Levi, another Ugandan Jewish student studying at the Conservative Yeshiva, was also promised Masa funding and had it revoked without warning. He was similarly told that he did not have the appropriate Masa visa, and managed to scrape by with emergency fundraising done by the yeshiva.

Members of the Marom Olami Masorti youth movement in Uganda. Lev Gringauz/JW

Not everyone was so lucky.

In December 2017, Yehuda Kimani, a Kenyan member of the Abayudaya, traveled to Israel for a two week winter program at the Conservative Yeshiva. At the airport, he was detained, not allowed to call his sponsors or a lawyer, and deported.

The original reason for his deportation was stated as being because, though Kimani came with a three-month tourist visa approved by the Israeli embassy in Nairobi, he had not mentioned a previous visa application that had been rejected by the embassy.

The Interior Ministry also said they were concerned with Kimani overstaying his visa, with no evidence to indicate that he might do so.

But in front of the Knesset (Israeli Parliament) Committee for Immigration, Absorption, and Diaspora Affairs, Amos Arbel, an official in the Interior Ministry, referred to Kimani as “a goy [non-Jew] from Kenya” and asked the committee if they wanted “half of Africa coming here” while denying allegations of racism at the Interior Ministry.

Nambi was shocked as she observed the committee. “I am sitting there, and I’m Jewish, and he is calling me half of Africa,” she said, alleging that the negative treatment of the Abayudaya is precisely because of racism. She doesn’t buy the argument that many Jews, not just converts, have serious difficulties with the Interior Ministry when it comes to Israeli visas and making aliyah.

“I don’t even want to be here anymore,” Nambi said with tears in her eyes. “Being here should have brought me so much spirit and so much love…I used to love prayers. I was happy. I was Jewish, you know? But when you’re here, everyone is fighting [over] who is more Jewish, everybody is telling you how you aren’t Jewish in this way and this way. It’s really hard to be Jewish in this place.”

Unraveling Legalities

Though Nambi and others see the Interior Ministry’s behavior towards the Abayudaya as racist, “we are not making [Yosef Kibita’s petition] on the basis of racism,” said Rabbi Andrew Sacks, director of the Masorti Rabbinical Assembly in Israel.

Sacks facilitated the original conversions of the Abayudaya in 2002, and since then has been a leading figure in advocating for the community. The Masorti movement is a co-petitioner with Kibita against the Interior Ministry.

Kibita’s petition is about proving legitimacy under the Israeli Law of Return, which is the primary reason that the Abayudaya are not recognized as Jewish.

The Law of Return was enacted in 1950, and grants automatic citizenship to any Jew who should choose to immigrate to Israel. According to the law, a Jew is someone “who was born of a Jewish mother or has become converted to Judaism and who is not a member of another religion.”

While “born of a Jewish mother” is a specific definition, taken from traditional Jewish law, the Law of Return doesn’t specify the criteria to “become converted to Judaism.” Instead, that has been left to a series of rulings by the Israeli Supreme Court.

Among those rulings is a majority opinion in a case from 1999 that states: “A conversion that is performed abroad within the framework of a ‘recognized Jewish community’…should be recognized by the [the Interior Ministry] for the purposes of the Law of Return.”

The standard of a “recognized Jewish community” is where things get complicated for the Abayudaya.

Nicky Maor, a leading Israeli immigration lawyer and the attorney representing Kibita, noted that “the first people [from Uganda] who converted didn’t convert in a Jewish community because the Jewish community didn’t exist” in the country prior to the conversions. Without a pre-existing “recognized Jewish community,” their conversions are not recognized as legitimate for the purposes of Jewish immigration to Israel, and by extension, Masa.

In 2014, after being pushed to remedy the situation, the Interior Ministry published criteria for accepting the immigration of converts under the Law of Return.

The ministry specified that a “recognized Jewish community” is any community that is accepted by a major Jewish denomination, such as the Masorti or Reform movements, and/or is recognized as a Jewish community by the Jewish Agency. After 2014, the Abayudaya were retroactively recognized by the Jewish Agency and the Masorti movement. But the Interior Ministry, without explanation, hasn’t accepted either recognition.

This is the basis for Kibita’s petition against the Interior Ministry. If the Abayudaya are considered a “recognized Jewish community,” then Kibita’s conversion is valid and the Interior Ministry can’t legally deny him the right to immigrate to Israel as a Jew under the Law of Return.

The head of the ministry is Aryeh Deri, a Knesset Member of a far-right ultra-Orthodox political party. On principle, Orthodox Jews don’t recognize non-Orthodox conversions as legitimate. It has been speculated by Rabbi Sacks and others in the Masorti movement that the case of the Abayudaya isn’t really about the legal technicality of recognition. Rather, an ultra-Orthodox politician is refusing to legitimize non-Orthodox conversions, or to give non-state actors the ability to do so.

Plainly speaking, if the court rules that Kibita “‘must be given citizenship because we recognize the process [of conversion] and the community,’ then the Interior Ministry really doesn’t have an excuse to deny anybody else,” Sacks said. “They may try, but they won’t succeed.”

Bitter Irony

In 2015, Marom Olami, the global young adult arm of the Masorti movement, sought to get a group of Abayudaya to Israel on a Masa program. The group included Kibita and Sarah Nabaggala, now 27 and studying at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. There was much delay because the Interior Ministry wasn’t responsive to requests for visas, and during that time the list of almost 20 participants shrank to five. Finally, in January 2017, the five participants traveled to Israel for a five-month program that included studying at the Conservative Yeshiva and volunteering on Kibbutz Keturah in the south. Both Kibita and Nabaggala found the program exhilarating.

A natural question, then, would be why not bring the Abayudaya on Birthright Israel, the wildly successful program that has brought more than 650,000 diaspora Jews between the ages of 18-32 on a free 10-day trip to explore their connection with Israel.

Though there there were plans to do so, Birthright got antsy after Yehuda Kimani was deported from Israel in Dec. 2017. They wanted a guarantee from the Interior Ministry that if a group of Ugandan Jews came to Israel, they would be allowed in. The trip was nearly canceled. But after months of quiet negotiating by the Masorti movement, the trip was approved.

On Aug. 21, 2018, the group of almost 40 Ugandan Jews arrived in Israel to much fanfare and media coverage. “They were singing songs, some of them wanting to kiss this land and just knowing that this is home for them,” Nabaggala said. She led the trip with a friend, Asiimwe Rabbin.

The central synagogue of the Abayudaya Jewish community in rural Uganda. Ben Sales/JTA

The experience was bittersweet.

“The young people on Birthright, when I was staffing the trip, I just watched them,” Nabaggala remembers. She was happy for the opportunity they were given but anticipated the disappointment they would feel on learning that Israel does not recognize them as Jewish.

“I just didn’t want to see the disappointment in their eyes,” she said.

Instead of being given regular three-month tourist visas like all the other Birthright trips, the Abayudaya were given specific 10-day visas because the Interior Ministry was worried that the Abayudaya would overstay their time in the country if given full tourist visas.

Rabbin applied through Masa to study at the Conservative Yeshiva for the fall of 2018. He was rejected in October when Masa openly stated it was because the Interior Ministry didn’t recognize him as Jewish.

Nabaggala remembers breaking down when she heard the news.

“If you can just show someone something good [the Birthright experience] and then say ‘no, you can’t have the rest,’ I don’t understand it. It’s really very painful for us.”

The Stage Is Set

As the Dec. 30 deadline for the Interior Ministry to answer his petition approaches, Yosef Kibita is unnaturally optimistic about the prospects of gaining Jewish recognition for himself and the Abayudaya.

“Everything is out of my control, but I believe that things will be fine,” he says calmly. “I don’t know whether it’s the way I console myself, but I always think things will be good.”

After the Marom-Masa program ended in July 2017, Kibita traveled to Uganda for a month and then settled back in Kibbutz Keturah to begin the process of Jewish immigration to Israel. His first aliyah application was denied because nobody at the Interior Ministry knew of the existence of the Abayudaya, he said. But then Rabbi Sacks, the Masorti movement, and his now-attorney Nicky Maor stepped in.

Kibita was given a second application, which was denied by the Interior Ministry in May. In June, his deportation by the ministry was stopped at the last second by the Supreme Court. The court made a date for Kibita’s petition to be heard on July 29, but month after month the ministry has asked for a delay to answer the petition.

Member of the Uganda Jewish community.

The wait has been long and stressful, as the court’s stay on his deportation ended in July, and Kibita hasn’t been issued any new visa. But he sees the situation as a matter of faith.

“It’s not secure,” Kibita admits. “But God provides security for me.”

Though many, like Rabbi Sacks and Maor, are confident that the Supreme Court will rule in favor of Kibita, there is an overwhelming pessimism that still holds some members of the community.

“Am I going to wait for my whole life for that aliyah,” wonders Sarah Nabaggala, who has thought seriously about immigrating to Israel.

“Or maybe my grandchildren will have it, or my great-grandchildren. Or maybe I will never see it in my lifetime…I want to have hope, and sometimes I do. But sometimes I look at the reality.”

No matter the outcome of his petition, Kibita is determined that nothing is going to shake away the faith of the Abayudaya.

“I am Jewish. And whatever decision comes out from their judgement, it will not change anything about my belief or about our beliefs,” he says.

“We became Jewish not by birth, not by blood, but by love. We just love being Jewish…so whatever happens, they recognize us, they don’t recognize us, we shall still be Jewish people, and we shall still believe in being Jewish people.”

Lev Gringauz is a freelance journalist currently based in Israel, whose writing has focused on unique trends in the Jewish world.

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