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“We are finding numerous cases these days of young adults in Israel trying to obtain work permits and being put through the ringer attempting to prove that they’re Jewish,” says Nicole Maor, an attorney with the Israel Religious Action Center who has handled some of these cases. “What’s happening is that instead of encouraging these young Jews to strengthen their connections to Israel, they’re turning them off.”
Maor notes that in a recent case she appealed, a letter from a rabbi attesting to her client’s Jewish lineage was rejected because the rabbi had retired and was no longer the acting head of a congregation.
B., an American who asked that his full name not be used, is another case in point. In 2010, he spent 10 months in Israel on a program sponsored by Masa, the Jewish Agency-supported organization that runs hundreds of gap-year, study-abroad and post-college programs in Israel.
Defining himself as a “third-generation atheist” whose maternal grandmother was born Jewish, he and his family never belonged to a Jewish congregation. When he finished his Masa program, he decided to stay in Israel and complete a master’s degree, after which he began looking for a job.
“I was told I needed to get a work visa, and to do that, I needed a letter from my rabbi confirming that I was Jewish,” recalls B. “Because I didn’t have a congregational rabbi, I contacted my Hillel rabbi, who wrote me a letter, but the Interior Ministry said it wasn’t good enough because it didn’t say that my mother was Jewish, and this Hillel rabbi didn’t feel she could attest that my mother was Jewish.”
Because B. couldn’t find certified documentation of his mother’s Jewish lineage, he had no choice but to return to the United States for classes in Judaism to “affirm” his Jewish roots. In effect, he started a conversion course so he could come back to Israel and obtain his work permit.
The experience left him with a bitter taste. “What annoyed me is that I was excluded because I don’t have a rabbi to my name,” he says. “It makes me question whether I want to stay in Israel.”