What is a Jewish Community?

This week the Israeli Supreme Court heard a case about a member of the Abayudaya community of Ugandan Jews who is seeking to become an Israeli citizen. The Ministry of the Interior in Israel denied his request because it does not recognize his conversion to Judaism. Normally, Israel accepts immigration requests from people who convert to Judaism abroad, through the auspices of a recognized Jewish community, a designation the ministry has decided not to give the Abayudaya.

I have written about the Jews of Uganda, and our partnership with them, before. They trace their community back to their founder who decided he wanted to live as a Jew but didn’t formally convert. In 2002, the Conservative movement sent rabbis to Uganda to officially convert members of the community. Today, the Abayudaya are recognized by the movement and by the Jewish Agency, but the Interior Ministry, controlled by the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, refuses to accept them.

For decades, since the adoption of the Law of Return that allows any Jew to make aliyah and become an Israeli citizen, we have struggled with the question of who is a Jew. Now, because of the politics of conversion in Israel, the new debate is centered around the question of what is a Jewish community. Conversions performed by Conservative and Reform rabbis in Israel are not recognized by the state, but such conversions performed in the diaspora by recognized Jewish communities are accepted for the purpose of citizenship.

Ostensibly, this odd situation is meant to prevent the conversion process from being a loophole that would allow mass immigration of non-Jews into Israel. Decades ago, no one would have considered Israel a destination for migrants. It was a small, poor, besieged country in an unfriendly neighborhood, but today Israel has a high standard of living, a vibrant economy and is regularly on the list of happiest countries.

Israel has seen non-Jewish migrants and asylum-seekers enter the country looking for a better life. While it is theoretically possible that some of these people could find an unscrupulous rabbi to provide a fake conversion, the likelihood is very small. In reality, the people who convert to Judaism do so for spiritual reasons, and it has been noted that often in Israel the Judaism of black Africans is questioned in ways that it is not for white Europeans and Americans.

The Conservative movement’s petition to allow Yosef Kibita to make aliyah has been withdrawn on technical grounds. The high court said that he doesn’t have standing since he converted in 2008 while the Abayudaya community was not recognized until 2009. The court said he could go back to Uganda, convert again, request citizenship now that he has a conversion from a recognized community, and they will hear the case again. We will see what he decides to do.

In the meantime, questions about what it means to be a Jewish community will remain and will only become more thorny now that COVID has upended our notions of time and space. If I live in Africa but participate in prayer services and Jewish education provided by a synagogue in New Jersey, what is my Jewish community? Technology has the power to bring us together and connect people across the world, but it will continue to challenge us to redefine Jewish life in the 21st century.

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