Now that you’ve read the Book of Ruth and pondered the courage of a young woman who chose to tie her fate to that of the Jewish people, ask yourself whether Ruth the Moabite would have been able to get citizenship in Israel.
The converts are the most vulnerable members of our society. On the one hand, they do not have the background and social connections to smooth over life issues. On the other hand, their sincerity and eagerness to join the Jewish People and the goodness they see in our tradition can lead to disappointment, when met by the harsh realities of any society.
For this reason, the Torah commands us 36 times to love the converts and act kindly towards them. Yet, it seems that the Israeli Interior Ministry has not heard of this timeless Jewish commandment.
“Hi, I’ve been in Israel for over eight months, but the Interior Ministry is dragging its feet in issuing my citizenship. What do I do?”
Obstacles to citizenship
Having started an organization assisting olim from Russia and Ukraine, we get calls like these almost every day. “Let me guess? Did you convert in Russia?” I tell her. “Yes, how did you know?”
It is simple. For the past several months, we have been guiding dozens of righteous converts from Russia and Ukraine (but not only), people who chose to become Jewish years ago and who have been an integral part of their Jewish communities. Although their conversions are recognized by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel and although they lead an upstanding Jewish lifestyle, the Population and Immigration Authority has been creating huge obstacles to granting them citizenship. At other times, their cases are set aside and they are forced to wait for months, sometimes more than a year.
Take Miriam and Yissachar, for example. The couple and their eight children came to Israel in June 2022. They had converted with the official rabbinical court of Moscow and had been living in the Jewish community for over five years.
After six months in Israel and with Miriam expecting another child, we applied huge pressure on the Interior Ministry and she received citizenship just days before giving birth. Yissachar and six of the children received citizenship two months later.
However, the couple has two nine-year-old children, adopted at birth. Elisha and Naomi converted together with the rest of the family. Elisha has special needs and requires extensive medical and educational care. The Interior Ministry has not granted citizenship to the twins, requiring more and more paperwork at each appointment.
Converts from around the world suffer long waits and interrogations
JUST THE other day, the family had yet another appointment scheduled at the ministry, thinking they have reached the end of their trials. But a day before, they got a call canceling the appointment and requiring yet another document, which needs to be ordered via lawyers from Russia. Needless to say, the children have been without proper medical or educational care for almost a year.
Or take Eva. She converted three years ago, came to Israel on Masa and then settled in Israel a year ago. Last summer, Eva married a Russian Jew, who is an Israeli citizen. For almost a year now she has been trying to get her citizenship. At one point, her case with all the documents was lost, so she had to obtain all the paperwork and refile again.
On another occasion, she was referred to a specific clerk who screamed at her that he doesn’t deal with converts and forced her out of the office. Eva is expecting her first child in June. With no medical insurance, she has not been able to see a doctor throughout her pregnancy.
These are not individual cases, this is a phenomenon. And it touches converts from all over the world, including US and Europe. Lost files, long waits, demeaning interrogations with questions as detailed and invasive as the kosher certification of baby formula, and no end in sight. And in the meantime, no ability to work, no access to medicine and no rights.
This is the reality faced by dozens of converts wishing to live in Israel.
It’s time for a change. It’s time for a clear, predictable path to citizenship with an explicit list of requirements. It’s time for humane and sensitive clerks, who realize that they are dealing with complex human stories.
On the heels of Shavuot, I hope the people representing Israel reclaim the Jewish tradition of kindness toward converts and finally let the followers of Ruth the Moabite settle in this land.
The writer is the founder and the executive director of Our People, an organization assisting in the practical, spiritual and community absorption of Russian and Ukrainian Jews.