RIO DE JANEIRO (JTA) — A cohort of nine Venezuelan Jewish converts had their request to make aliyah denied by Israel’s Interior Ministry, which claimed their engagement in Jewish communal life has not been sufficient.
The nine applicants, all indigenous Venezuelans who belong to three families, converted to Judaism in 2014 under the auspices of a Conservative rabbinical court. They come from the small rural town of Maracay, where no recognized Jewish community exists.
A recognized Jewish community includes at least one full-time rabbi and an active synagogue.
In such cases, Israel’s Interior Ministry requires a longer period of engagement in Jewish communal life following the conversion. The Venezuelan converts joined a synagogue an hour’s drive from their hometown and since then have been practicing and studying their religion for three years.
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 been protested by voices even among some Orthodox figures.
“These people, regardless of the denomination of their conversions, decided to unite their destiny to that of our people,” Daniel Askenazi, an Orthodox rabbi located in the Colombian city of Barranquilla, told the Israeli media. “It is our duty as Jews to raise our voices and demand that the State of Israel … expedite the absorption of these people.”
Leading the struggle in Israel on behalf of the nine converts is Rabbi Andy Sacks, director of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly in Israel, who said that Israel’s Prime Minister’s Office had ignored requests to help. Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky is said to be considering intervening with Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party.
“Sadly it is all too common that issues of race and denominational affiliation play into the decisions made by the Interior Ministry,” he said. “Far too often, there is no legitimate mechanism for appealing decisions once they’ve been made.”
In November 2016, Rabbi Juan Mejia confirmed that the Venezuelans — whose conversions he personally oversaw — joined the Jewish community of Valencia at his behest. In passionate letters begging for compassion from Israeli authorities citing the chaotic social situation in Venezuela, Mejia said their aliyah was a “matter of life and death.”
A Washington Post article published last Sunday said about 6,000 to 9,000 Jews remain in Venezuela — the general population of which totals around 30 million people. Just 15 years ago there were 20,000 Jews living in the South American nation.
Citing Israeli government data, the Washington Post reported that 111 Venezuelan Jews moved to Israel in 2015 — more than double the level from three years earlier.