According to the Law of Return, Jewish converts who wish to make aliyah are required to undergo a conversion in a “recognized Jewish community,” and then spend at least nine months actively engaged in Jewish life in said recognized community before they can move to Israel. However, for a group of nine Venezuelan Jews from Maracay who coverted to Judaism in 2014 under the auspices of a Conservative rabbinical court—and who joined a synagogue an hour’s drive from their hometown and have been practicing and studying their religion for three years—they apparently are not “involved enough” in Jewish life to make aliyah.
After a grueling six-month correspondence between the Jewish Agency and the Ministry of Interior, the Venezuelans were notified two weeks ago that their Israeli immigration requests had been rejected, a move which has understandably since been protested by major figures in the Conservative movement, such as Rabbis David Wolpe and Steven Wernick, and Masorti Olami president Gillian Caplin. Perhaps more unexpected is the support from Orthodox leaders such as Rabbis Asher Lopatin, Yechiel Eckstein, and Daniel Askenazi.
“These people, regardless of the denomination of their conversions, decided to unite their destiny to that of our people,” Askenazi declared. “It is our duty as Jews to raise our voices and demand that the State of Israel that was created with the aim of serving as a refuge for the Jewish people in times of catastrophe fulfill this role and expedite [their] absorption.”
Israel is no stranger to immigrants from the troubled South American country. As Venezuela’s ongoing economic crisis worsens, and with many members of its aging Jewish community relying on the black market for basic amenities such as food and medicine, many of them are fleeing to places like Miami, Panama, and Mexico, or have made aliyah. Only 6,000-9,000 Jews remain in the country today, a fraction of its formerly 20,000 strong population of just 15 years ago.
Religious and absorption processes aside, the situation is politically complicated as well, as Israel and Venezuela have no diplomatic ties, a direct result of then-President Hugo Chavez expelling the Israeli ambassador and his staff from Caracas in 2009 following Israel’s Gaza war with Hamas; Chavez subsequently began developing relations with prominent Israel antagonist Iran. The widespread anti-Semitism which took major root under Chavez has only continued to increase since his 2013 death.
When it concerns the plight of Venezuelan converts, Israeli authorities seem to be dragging their feet. “Sadly it is all too common that issues of race and denominational affiliation play into the decisions made by the Interior Ministry,” commented Rabbi Andy Sacks, director of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly in Israel.
In November 2016, Rabbi Juan Mejia confirmed that the Venezuelans—whose conversions he personally oversaw—joined the Jewish community of Valencia at his behest. However, a spokeswoman for the Ministry of the Interior maintained that immigration requests had been denied as “during the entire period when they were preparing for their conversion and in the period that followed, they did not belong to a Jewish community.” In passionate letters begging for compassion from Israeli authorities, and illustrating the rampant crime and murder which has been escalating in Venezuela, Mejia impressed that delays in processing “can be a matter of life and death.”
“These are my students,” Mejia has implored colleagues and allies. “Nicer Jews you couldn’t find. Keep them in your prayers. Send them your support. Call your Israeli consulate.”
Meanwhile, Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky is said to be considering intervening on behalf of the nine Venezuelans with interior minister Arye Dery, leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party.
MaNishtana is the pseudonym of Shais Rishon, an Orthodox African-American Jewish writer, speaker, rabbi, and author of Thoughts From A Unicorn. His latest book is Ariel Samson, Freelance Rabbi.