Aliyah: Converts get the run-around


Purim in Kaifeng
Photo courtesy: Eric Rothberg
Imagine the Israeli government blocking a Jew from observing Kashrut, putting on Tefilin, or lighting the Hanukah lights.
Sounds absurd.  Even for Israel which is home to the absurd.
There is a Mitvah to make Aliyah.  The Mitzvah is known as Yeshuv HaAretz. A Jew is obligated to build the land of Israel. Yes, there are disputes as to whether the commandment is Torahitic or Rabbinic. There are also disagreements as to how one may fulfill this obligation. But make no mistake – living in Israel allows one to fulfill more Mitzvot than living elsewhere.
This Mitzvah is no less an obligation for those who are Jews by Choice than those born into Judaism. The law of the State of Israel, as interpreted by the highest court in the land, has held that converts of non-Orthodox denominations must be given the same rights of  under the Law of Return as those who convert through the Orthodox movements and those born Jewish.
Yet our very own Interior Ministry - in the hands of an ostensibly religious political party (SHAS) – has blocked far too many who wish to fulfill their obligation of Yeshuv HaAretz.  At a time when Aliyah has slowed to a trickle one would expect that we would welcome potential Olim with open arms. With so many “religious” men, zealously Orthodox, avoiding military service one might think we would embrace a Jew by Choice seeking to serve in the IDF. But this is just not so.
Who is at fault?  I take my hat off to the fine people at the Jewish Agency’s Aliyah department.  They work faithfully to fulfill their mandate to bring Jews to Israel. They do the preparation work and hand in completed files to the Interior Ministry personnel who need only issue the OK. But that OK may take a long time. A very long time. In the interim the life of the potential Oleh may be put on hold as they are unable to make plans without the green light from this ministry. Does the Oleh sell his/her home, leave a job, continue to live out of boxes for month on end?
 Is this delay the result of malice? Is it discrimination against the non-Orthodox? Is it sometimes based on race?  It is largely the result of a shortage of man (human) power. The final permission to make Aliyah must come from a small office with one person designated to give the final say. If she is on medical leave, a personal day, or the case requires some added paperwork – there is no one to do it. Promises of extra help made in meetings at the highest level (in the presence of the head of the Jewish Agency, Natan Sharansky, and the Government Secretary, Gideon Hauser, have been ignored). One person to approve Aliyah. Absurd!
Allow me to present but one example of the cruelty of the system: Lee (not his real name) was brought to Israel by an organization determined to help the community of Kaifeng in China (this city has a long history of Jews living there but assimilation has nearly ended even the memory of the Jewish community).
Lee studied at a religious high school in Israel for four years. He prepared for conversion during this period. But he was not converted in the end. None of the students from Kaifeng were converted. Our Rabbinate does not, in the overwhelming majority of cases, convert people of color.
Lee returned to China where he kept Kosher (vegetarian), and continued his involvement with the Jewish life available to him. Lee was prepared for the Israeli academic system but not for the Chinese system. So university in China was not in the cards.
Lee had the good fortune to receive an invitation to BCI (the Brandeis Collegiate Institute of the American Jewish University) this past summer. Lee is now twenty years old. Here he participated in an intensive Jewish educational summer program for young adults.  Lee also completed his conversion. He appeared before a panel of three Masorti/Conservative rabbis, followed by Hatafat Dam and Mikveh.
Lee’s US visa expired yesterday. He is seeking a brief extension. Lee observes Kashrut, Shabbat, attends shul. He applied to make Aliyah following his acceptance into the Jewish people. His friends and schoolmates are in Israel. He leads a Jewish life. He hopes to serve in the IDF as his classmates have done. He seeks to fulfill the Mitzvah of Yeshuv HaAretz.
But time is running out for Lee. He may soon be forced to return to China. His file, with the recommendation of the Jewish Agency that he be granted a visa to make Aiyah, is sitting on a pile of files in the Interior Ministry. Each week we are told that maybe there will be an answer next week. But no answer seems imminent.
A Jew wishing to fulfill the Mitzvah of Aliyah. The Jewish State is the obstacle. Just absurd.
P.S. I was notified just one hour ago that, at least for now, Lee’s request to make Aliyah has been refused.