Twenty years ago, in February 2002, I was privileged to travel to Uganda as a member of a bet din — a rabbinic court — charged with overseeing the formal conversion of the Abayudaya community to Judaism.
Now, Kibita Yosef, one of the young men I was honored to help convert, who has made aliyah and has chosen to live his life in the homeland of the Jewish people, is facing deportation because the chief rabbinate refuses to recognize that conversion. This, despite the fact that conversions performed in the Diaspora are recognized for purposes of immigration and citizenship under Israel’s Law of Return, regardless of the movement affiliation of the presiding religious authorities.
“Abayudaya” simply means “Jews” in Luganda, which is a branch of Africa’s Bantu language group. Indeed, the Abayudaya had been leading exemplary, heroic, and self-sacrificing lives as Jews for more than 100 years, comprising five generations of many families we encountered.
The bet din brought a Torah scroll to the Abayudaya, to enhance their already rich liturgical and congregational life. Carrying the sacred scroll through Entebbe airport was an unforgettable moment of grace, inspiration, and “tikkun” — spiritual redemption and reparation.
The Bet Din — one Israeli and three American Conservative rabbis, aided by a senior American rabbinical student, were accompanied by leading members of Kulanu, the organization that had invited our small rabbinic contingent to officiate at the conversions, arranged our trip, and had long been providing moral and material support to our Ugandan brethren
The Ugandans’ admirable religious priorities were evident the moment we reached the community’s central village. We were received with Hebrew song and a banner that read: “The Abayudaya Community Welcomes the Sefer Torah, the Bet Din, and the Kulanu Delegation.” In that order!
Our bet din interviewed and examined several hundred individuals and family groups, convening from early morning to night throughout our week-long visit.
When in good time I depart this life and am called upon to offer a personal accounting before the Heavenly Tribunal, I fully intend to submit my role in officially welcoming the Abayudaya to Klal Yisrael — the eternal and worldwide Jewish People — as Defense Exhibit #1.
Kibita Yosef, then an eager and devoted 15-year-old member of the Abayudaya community, was among those who completed the exacting and punctilious conversion process we administered. It is thus with the most profound dismay that I have followed his ill treatment by the chief rabbinate of Israel and the government of the Jewish state, who have refused to acknowledge Yosef’s Jewish status. He now faces imminent deportation. I decry the obvious racism of the rabbinate and its governmental enablers, the scandalous violence done the Torah’s oft-repeated norm demanding that we love the convert, and the patent politicization and manipulative abuse of Israel’s celebrated and foundational Law of Return.
Given my own role in Kibita’s spiritual journey, I take a measure of personal umbrage at his maltreatment at the hands of fellow Jews and rabbinic colleagues. After all, “a rabbi who oversees one’s conversion is considered his rav muvhak — his definitive rabbi and teacher” (See Moed Katan 25B; Pitchei Teshuvah, citing Shaar Efrayim) — even though our decisive interaction was fully two decades ago.
The argument the chief rabbinate offers, that the Ugandan conversions are disqualified under the Law of Return because that East African nation is devoid of an “established Jewish community” (comparable, for example, to that of the United States), is specious and in egregious halachic error. As the halachic status of the Abayudaya was secured 20 years ago, Uganda now indeed is blessed by an established, devoted Jewish community with its own sophisticated religious and educational system, fully involved in the wider society, proudly and openly serving in its military and local and national governmental bodies, constructively interacting with, and enjoying the well-earned admiration of, neighboring Christians and Muslims, as well as fellow Jews around the world.
It was Rav himself (aka Rabbi Abba Arikha, 175-247 CE, whose arrival in Babylonia in 219 is accounted the beginning of rabbinic Judaism in the Diaspora) who — together with his leading disciple and eventual successor, Rav Huna — taught that halachic documents constituting the official act of a bet din may be issued, and thereby take effect where the bet din convenes, regardless of where the rites or events being adjudicated took place:
“As Rav instructed the scribes, and so, too, did Rav Huna instruct the scribes: If you are convening in Shili, write ‘in Shili’ even though the events being adjudicated took place in Hini. (Shili and Hini were both towns near Sura, where Rav and Huna led that city’s foundational Diaspora Yeshiva.) If you are convening in Hini, write ‘in Hini’ even though the events being adjudicated took place in Shili” (Yevamot 116A; see also Shulchan Aruch Hoshen Mishpat 43:20, which explicitly extends the principle to rabbinic adjudication of events and rites that occurred b’medinah acheret — in a different country).
In keeping with this halachic principle, Kibita Yosef appeared and testified before our bet din, underwent hatafat dam brit (the drawing of covenantal blood: a halachic stringency, as he had been ritually circumcised long ago), and mikveh — immersion in a body of fresh water. I personally witnessed all of this in Uganda.
However, in accordance with the dictum of Rav and Rav Huna as codified in the Shulchan Aruch as normative Jewish law, the bet din issued our findings, rendered our decisions, effected our maaseh bet din, and signed all relevant documents only after we returned to the United States. The fact that the events informing our painstaking decisions took place in Africa is irrelevant. Kibita Yosef’s conversion took place in the United States. His conversionary bona fides are American.
The racist and cynical refusal to recognize his Jewish status as unmoored from an “established Jewish community” is wrong on the law and wrong on the facts. It is the sinful abuse of a committed, pious, loving Jew-by-choice — if we even have the audacity to apply such language to a fifth-generation Jew.
Rejecting Kibita Yosef’s Jewish status on this basis impugns the validity of every American convert to Judaism, as well as the legitimacy of their rabbinic mentors.
Rav Huna, I firmly believe, would feel a special kinship with the Abayudaya, who persist in their piety despite widespread abject poverty. Candidates for conversion appearing before our 2002 bet din routinely and sincerely, emphatically and lovingly described the centrality of “Sabiti” — Luganda for Shabbat observance — to their religious identities and family lives.
Huna also endured long years of poverty and deprivation — he dug ditches to support himself and his studies. He once had to pawn his decorative belt in order to purchase wine for Shabbat Kiddush. His example presaged the Abayudaya experience. Let his teaching guide their fate.
If the state of Israel’s actions are to be true to its authentic religious and moral traditions — if it truly values its religious kinship with the Diaspora that was in significant measure established by Rav and Rav Huna — it must renounce the insidious racism and exclusivism with which it has so misused and abused Kibita Yosef. That will give us all just cause for celebration and pride.
If it continues on its present course of persecution under the guise of legal principle, so brazenly misapplied and steeped in halachic error, we will all properly share the burden of shame, and a very real, very costly, and entirely avoidable loss.
As the document I was so privileged to sign two decades ago on behalf of Kibita Yosef assures him: Achinu Atah — “you are our brother.” May our actions gratefully reflect that joyous fact.
Joseph H. Prouser is the rabbi of Temple Emanuel of North Jersey in Franklin Lakes.