‘Aliya criteria are a Catch-22’

“There is no argument at this point as to whether they are affiliated with a recognized community.”

January 11, 2017 05:44
Rabbi Andrew M. Sacks

Rabbi Andrew M. Sacks. (photo credit: COURTESY OF RABBI ANDREW M. SACKS)

Leading Conservative Rabbi Andy Sacks is going head to head with the Interior Ministry on behalf of the Venezuelan Jewish community. In what he has described as a “catch-22,” he criticized the ministry for the criteria it specified for the immigration of nine converts to Judaism from the rural town of Maracay.

Sacks is the director of the Masorti [Conservative] Movement’s Rabbinical Assembly in Israel (the organization of Masorti/Conservative rabbis).

The Population and Immigration Border Authority (PIBA) told The Jerusalem Post Tuesday that the reason for the rejection was that the applicants “were not affiliated with a recognized Jewish community, and that their preparatory conversion process had not been conducted in an acceptable community framework.”

The PIBA said that, in light of these reasons, the Venezuelans in question had not met the requirements demanded of applicants who have converted to Judaism abroad.

Having been in regular contact with PIBA, Sacks said the first “excuse” given by PIBA to the Post was outdated.

The Post was shown stamped and signed letters for each of the three families who applied for aliya from the recognized Jewish community of Valencia. The letters state that the families have been active members of the community since June 2015, that they regularly attend synagogue and are an “excellent support to the community.”

The families also provided the Post with receipts of their membership in the community.

“There is no argument at this point as to whether they are affiliated with a recognized community,” Sacks says.

The second reason PIBA gave regarding the applicants’ alleged lack of a recognized Jewish community during their conversion process is more problematic.

As Sacks echoed comments made by American Jewish jurist Alan Dershowitz, “by those standards Avraham Avinu [Our forefather Abraham] couldn’t make aliya.”

In a recent interview with ILTV, Dershowitz slammed PIBA’s criteria as “absurd” and noted that Judaism began without an existing Jewish community.

“Under these criteria, Avraham wouldn’t be considered a Jew, because he didn’t live in an existing Jewish community, he just created one,” he said. “I will not rest until this decision is reversed,” Dershowitz added, stressing that taking the group “out of harm’s way” in Venezuela should be the priority.

“During the time they converted, they were not a part of an affiliated community, meaning if they had converted in Philadelphia, where there is an established Jewish community, then they would have converted, in a sense, as part of a recognized community,” Sacks explained. “What the Interior Ministry is saying is that when they converted in Maracay, there was no established, recognized Jewish community.”

The rabbi who oversaw their conversions, Oklahoma-based Rabbi Juan Mejia, also pointed out that Colombian native Jorge Fernandez, who was in the same conversion group as the rejected Venezuelans, is now living as a new immigrant in Beersheba.

Fernandez spent time in a Jewish community in Uruguay before making aliya, but during the conversion process he was part of an “emergent community” led by Mejia in Santa Marta – not in a recognized community.

Mejia is a Conservative rabbi, and there has been speculation in the media and among religious leaders as to whether the denomination chosen by the converts might be a factor in the ministry’s decision to reject their applications.

The Interior Ministry declined to comment on the matter.

In a telephone interview with the Post, Mejia noted that there is a current global phenomenon of “emergent communities. This is a group of people who get together and decide to practice Judaism, either because there is not a community where they live, or, if there is one, they might not be welcome in it.

“Shavei Israel [Israel Returns] is doing a lot of work and their converts make aliya with no problem. I started working with them six years ago and since there are none [Jews] in their city, that was their only choice. They did ulpan in Caracas and then had access to this recognized community [Valencia].

“I meet with them as much as I can. I do Shabbatonim [Sabbath get togethers], they are ordained at the religious court with conservative rabbis and after conversion they keep learning and we stay in touch,” Mejia explained.

“Why are the most stringent criteria being applied to people in mortal peril?” Mejia asked, in reference to the escalation of crime, murder and poverty in Venezuela.

“The country is collapsing around them, there is rising antisemitism and they don’t have the same protection that the wealthy Jews of Caracas have,” he continued. “Everyone in their neighborhood knows they are Jewish – they just put a very nice target on their backs.”

The Interior Ministry’s rejection three weeks ago followed a six-month correspondence between the Jewish Agency and the ministry.

Sacks, who said that the ministry had given “several different excuses for the decision,” believes that it was based on a “combination of racism and discrimination against non-Orthodox converts.”

Moreover, he has expressed frustration toward the Jewish Agency, accusing it of an “abdication of responsibility and failure to act as the protector and defender of the right of Jews to make aliya under the Law of Return.”

His comments came after the Jewish Agency referred the The Jerusalem Post to the Interior Ministry for questions on the matter.

“The Ministry of Interior is the authority legally tasked with determining eligibility for immigration visas under the Law of Return, based in part on recommendations by the Jewish Agency, which the ministry may either accept or reject,” Jewish Agency spokesman Avi Mayer said.

“In this particular case, the ministry, acting in accordance with its mandate, has determined that the applicants have not met the requirements for eligibility under the law. Further inquiries should be addressed to the Ministry of the Interior.”

Sacks noted that Yehuda Scharf, director of Aliya and Absorption at the Jewish Agency, had personally told him that he believes the group is entitled to aliya, but he did not make an official recommendation to the ministry.

“I want the Jewish Agency to stand up and defend the right of Jews under the Law of Return,” Sacks said.

A Jewish Agency official responded that "Badmouthing committed professionals who have dedicated their lives to serving the Jewish people is the last resort of those who have no actual arguments. The law is the law and if one wishes to change it, there are legislative channels for that."

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