Ukrainians trying to convert to Judaism in Israel face Kafkaesque trials

Yael and Aaron Agpov from Ukraine had tried to convert to Judaism in 2022, but then the war broke out. This, plus Israel's Kafkaesque bureaucracy, thrust them into uncertainty.

 THE AGPOV family with ITIM head Rabbi Seth Farber (L) after receiving Israeli citizenship at the Netanya Interior Ministry offices. (photo credit: COURTESY ITIM)
THE AGPOV family with ITIM head Rabbi Seth Farber (L) after receiving Israeli citizenship at the Netanya Interior Ministry offices.
(photo credit: COURTESY ITIM)

The Zoom interview begins, and the smiling face of Yael Agpov appears on my computer screen. Yael speaks rapid-fire Russian, and her knowledge of Hebrew is rudimentary at best. Although the assistance of a translator is required for the interview, her feelings come through quite clearly, despite the language barrier.

After converting to Judaism in 2022, fleeing Ukraine, coming to Israel and enduring a bureaucratic battle that lasted a year, Yael and her family have finally become full-fledged Israeli citizens. They are home.

The story of Yael and Aaron Agpov was first documented by Zvika Klein in The Jerusalem Post in April 2022. The couple and their four children – two from Yael’s first marriage and two whom they had together – were living in Dnipro, the fourth-largest city in Ukraine. Yael, who was then known as Yulia, became interested in Judaism and began to attend services at the synagogue in Dnipro. 

In 2019, Yael started to take classes given by Rabbi Shmuel Kaminetsky, chief rabbi of Dnipro and the Dnepropetrovsk region. Her husband also became interested in Judaism and began participating in classes. 

After an extended period of study, in January 2022 the couple and their two younger children were converted by Rabbi Yosef Hanoch Brodbecker of Kyiv, whose conversions are approved by Israel’s Chief Rabbinate. Yael and Aaron planned to live in Dnipro as members of the city’s Chabad community and were not planning to move to Israel.

 RA’ANANA, WHERE the family waited in limbo for six weeks.  (credit: FLASH90) RA’ANANA, WHERE the family waited in limbo for six weeks. (credit: FLASH90)

On February 24, 2022, Russia attacked Ukraine, and their lives, like those of millions of other Ukrainians, changed forever.

“When the shelling started,” recalls Yael, “we were afraid. We drove outside the city and headed west, passing through Ukraine.” Yael and Aaron and the children finally arrived in Warsaw. When they arrived at a hotel that the Jewish Agency was using to house refugees preparing for aliyah, agency officials told them they could not stay there because they were not eligible.

The struggle to undergo Orthodox conversion in Israel

The Agpovs had undergone Orthodox conversion by a rabbi approved by Israel’s Chief Rabbinate. Why were they not eligible to make aliyah and become Israeli citizens? Rabbi Seth Farber, founder and head of ITIM – a nonprofit organization that helps people navigate Israel’s religious bureaucracy – has been advocating on behalf of the Agpov family since they arrived in Israel. He explains that several conditions must be fulfilled for converts to obtain Israeli citizenship. First, the conversion must take place in a recognized, well-established Jewish community. Second, the convert must live in the Jewish community for at least nine months before the conversion, including a study program of at least nine months. Finally, the convert must be an active member of the community where the conversion took place, for a minimum of nine months following the conversion. 

The Agpovs had fulfilled the first two conditions – they lived in Dnipro, a city with a recognized Jewish community. They had spent at least nine months in Dnipro studying for conversion. However, they had not lived in Dnipro for nine months following their conversion because they were forced to leave when the war broke out. 

“Essentially, they were told to go back to their community, even though it had been decimated,” says Farber, recalling their difficulties in Warsaw.

Farber received a call from Rabbi Michael Schudrich, the chief rabbi of Poland, who is a longtime acquaintance, asking, “What do I do with these people, and why aren’t they Jewish? They look Jewish, and they act Jewish.”

Farber arranged to have the Agpov family brought to Israel under the auspices of ITIM at the end of February 2022.

The Kafkaesque story continued. When the Agpovs arrived in Israel, they received A5 visas, which are granted to foreign citizens who are in the process of obtaining permanent residence or citizenship in Israel. Holders of this visa also have the right to work in Israel and receive all the National Insurance benefits of an Israeli citizen, except for the right to vote in the state elections and to receive an Israeli passport.

Given the circumstances of their arrival, the Agpovs had nowhere to go because they were not officially eligible for aliyah and had no relatives in Israel. Farber arranged housing for them with volunteers from his Ra’anana community. Several days after they arrived, one of the volunteers brought them to the Interior Ministry office in Herzliya to attempt to settle their citizenship status. After waiting for hours, they were told that the authorities at the airport had issued them three-day tourist visas instead of A5 visas. The volunteer who had brought them had to pay hundreds of shekels for the family to have the tourist visas changed to A5 visas.

The Agpovs ended up staying in Ra’anana for six weeks and received a great deal of assistance from an ad hoc volunteer network of ITIM supporters and members of the synagogue where Farber is the rabbi.

“Thank God for Google Translate,” says Farber with a smile. “We had no way of communicating with them.

“We [the community in Ra’anana] helped them financially because they were not receiving any benefits from the government, and that help has continued,” he says. “Because they fell between the cracks, they couldn’t join the government system. The government had no program for Jews who were planning to stay here and make aliyah but couldn’t make aliyah at the time.”

After several weeks, it was no longer practical for the Agpovs to remain in Ra’anana. There are few Russian speakers there, and the Agpovs needed their own place to live and become independent. ITIM’s Russian-speaking staff connected them with a Russian-speaking Chabad community in Netanya that was absorbing new immigrants from Ukraine, and they moved there while continuing to receive support from the Ra’anana community.

After the family moved to Netanya, Farber and ITIM convinced the Interior Ministry to waive the nine-month residency requirement after conversion by counting the time they spent living in Ra’anana and Netanya toward the residence requirement for converts.

Once the nine-month residency requirement was fulfilled, says Farber, the Agpovs should have been immediately accepted as full Israeli citizens with all of their aliyah benefits. 

BUT THE bureaucratic red tape continued. 

Although the Chief Rabbinate had approved the family’s conversion, the Interior Ministry would not accept the copy of the original conversion certificate and demanded that the Agpovs provide the original certificate with the signature of all three rabbis who had certified the conversion. Yael and Aaron had converted on January 31, 2022, and by the time the original certificate was ready, the war had broken out, and they had only a copy of the original. Obtaining the signatures of two of the rabbis who were based in Israel was not a problem. However, as one of the rabbis was in Ukraine, ITIM had to find someone going to Ukraine who would agree to bring the original certificate to be signed, which, says Farber, “was an enormous challenge in the middle of a war.”

There were other bureaucratic hoops to jump through, he adds. When a minor under 18 converts, the biological parents have to agree to the conversion, so ITIM had to locate and contact the biological father of the two older children from Yael’s first marriage, who lives in Ukraine, to agree. 

The ministry also had difficulty keeping track of the Agpovs’ file. It had first been opened in Herzliya, moved to Netanya, and ended up in the Jerusalem office. This tracking down delayed their absorption, prevented them from receiving status as citizens and, significantly, prevented them from taking ulpan classes and learning Hebrew. 

Finally, on March 2, approximately a year after they arrived in Israel, the Agpovs, together with Farber, went to the Interior Ministry offices in Jerusalem and received their official Israeli ID cards, along with the rights and privileges of new immigrants. 

THE AGPOVS are happy in Netanya. Yael babysits and cares for an elderly woman; and Aaron, who trained as a doctor in Ukraine, is working at Laniado Hospital as an aide, while he waits for his medical license to be certified in Israel. 

Yael’s two older children from her first marriage – a 16-year-old girl and a boy about to celebrate his bar mitzvah – attend the Shuvu school in Netanya, which combines study of both secular and Jewish subjects. They are studying for conversion under the auspices of the Chief Rabbinate.

Yael and Aaron’s two younger children – aged five and three – attend a religious preschool in Netanya. Yael is thrilled that her children are speaking Hebrew fluently. Farber adds that the children have adapted to Israeli society and have many friends. 

Despite the difficulties that Yael and Aaron encountered in the year they spent in legal limbo waiting for citizenship, Yael says they love being in Israel. They are fully aware of the pluses and minuses of living in Israel but remain enthusiastic about their life in the Jewish state. 

Farber says that helping the Agpov family reminded him of black-and-white films about refugees from World War II, except that these events were occurring in the present and he was experiencing them in color.

“You realize that ITIM really has an opportunity to help them find their bearings in a time of crisis,” he says. 

The Russia-Ukraine war is continuing, and more Jewish families are arriving, many of whom have encountered the same problems as the Agpovs.

“Unfortunately,” he says, “there is a suspicion about immigration from the FSU in the present government. Some feel that they are just trying to get benefits. But when you meet people like this with such a positive attitude, even after 20 years of doing what I do, it inspires you.”

Farber adds that ITIM currently represents seven families in Israeli court whose conversions were recognized by the Chief Rabbinate but have not been recognized by the Interior Ministry as Israeli citizens.

“The ministry doesn’t always see the human side of things,” he says. “On the other hand, once they saw the situation, a number of people there were very helpful.” 

It is customary to read the Book of Ruth on Shavuot, which tells the story of Ruth, a Moabite woman who joined the Jewish people, saying to Naomi, her mother-in-law, “Where you go, I will go, and where you stay, I will stay. Your people will be my people, and your God, my God.” 

Says Farber, “One of the great themes of the Book of Ruth is knowing when people who are foreign to our nation want to join our nation, how to make them feel comfortable and be part of things. It’s not just Ruth’s commitment to Judaism. It’s also Naomi’s commitment to Ruth, and Boaz’s commitment to Ruth, and the community’s commitment to her. It takes a village to bring Ruth into the family. Naomi can only take her so far, and then Boaz has to step in. And then Boaz can only take her so far, and then the community has to step in.

“I think it is a great responsibility of the State of Israel to make those who have come here who want to make Israel their home – not only those who have already converted, but those who want to convert – it is important to make them feel a part of it. It is the responsibility not only of the Rabbinate and the convert but also of the citizen of Israel to be warm and welcoming.” 