NEW YORK (May. 18)
The attempt of a black, Jewish American family to immigrate to Israel was interrupted last week when they were detained at Ben- Gurion Airport and told they had to leave the country.
The family members had converted to Judaism under the auspices of the Conservative movement.
Though it is not yet clear why the Yaisrael family has been singled out, there is conjecture that it has more to do with their race than their Conservative conversion, sources say.
The father, Elazar Yaisrael, had immigrated 18 months ago and had become a citizen of the Jewish state.
The rest of the family members — his wife, Sahrah Williams Yaisrael, four of their children and two grandchildren — were told when they arrived at Israel’s main airport May 11 that since they had begun the process of obtaining Israeli citizenship in Chicago, they were required to complete the process there, according to Israeli Foreign Ministry sources.
But sources familiar with the case said that the Chicago branch of the Israel Aliyah Office was instructed six months ago by the Ministry of Interior in Jerusalem to stop helping the rest of the Yaisrael family make aliyah.
In an unusual step, the Chicago office was instructed to “butt out,” said the source, who asked not to be identified.
Questions about this turn of events have not yet been sorted out, said Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly.
“I do believe there’s prejudice. It is about blackness,” he said in an interview this week. “I don’t like what happened and I think it’s kind of an overreaction because of their color, and their strangeness because they’re not Ethiopian. For Israelis that’s an oddity.”
There apparently has been particular concern among Israeli officials because the family lived in Chicago, the base of the Black Hebrew sect, a non-Jewish group that claims to be the rightful inheritors of the land of Israel and that has a community of 1250 in the southern Israeli city of Dimona.
But those acquainted with the family say they are not connected to the Black Hebrews.
Conservative Rabbi Andrew Sacks, a representative of the movement in Israel, wrote a letter in August 1996 to the aliyah authorities seeking to expedite the by-then already protracted process of facilitating the family’s immigration.
“The reason for the delay [in Elazar Yaisrael’s application] was the color of his skin,” he wrote. “Any additional delay [in the family’s application] will not be tolerated by our rabbinic organization.”
The Interior Ministry often questions whether converts to Judaism under the auspices of any movement — from Reform to Orthodox — are truly part of the Jewish community, said the Aliyah Center source.
In such cases, applicants furnish references from people in their synagogue or other Jewish groups.
Sahrah Yaisrael did the same, providing a letter from the rabbi of Conservative Congregation Am Echad, which is located in Park Forest, Ill.
But the letter did not help.
The attorney hired by the Conservative movement in Israel to represent the family, Dan Evron, declined to speak with reporters about the case.
When the family was first detained last week, Sacks distributed an e-mail titled “S.O.S. — Help Needed,” asking recipients to communicate with Israeli consulates about the case.
About a dozen people sent e-mails to consulates around the country, said Yehuda Ya’akov, consul for media and public affairs at the Israeli consulate in New York.
All were forwarded immediately to the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, he said.
“The preliminary examination into this shows it to be much more complicated than first thought,” Ya’akov said. “The word is that we have to wait for the further examination of the Ministry of the Interior.”
What is known is that when Elazar Yaisrael immigrated to Israel last year, he settled first in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo, and became a member of the Conservative Congregation Sheveth Achim there, said Meyers.
When he ran out of money, he stayed for awhile in a hostel in eastern Jerusalem, Meyers said, but Yaisrael has since moved to Beit Shemesh, a town west of Jerusalem.
He is working in his field, as a tractor-trailer driver.
When Yaisrael arrived in Israel with his family last week, he was told they would be released from custody only if they promised, in writing, to leave Israel within a month, Sacks said.
Evron, the attorney, intervened to get them released to Yaisrael’s home in Beit Shemesh without making such a promise, according to sources close to the case. They are permitted to stay in Israel while the matter is resolved.
Elazar and his wife, Sahrah, converted to Judaism a decade ago under the auspices of the Conservative movement at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, where they lived at the time.
After they completed the six-month Introduction to Judaism course required of all proselytes, they were tested for their knowledge of Judaism and their sincerity about converting.
Then Elazar Yaisrael underwent a symbolic circumcision, and both he and his wife submerged in the ritual bath called the mikvah, according to University of Judaism officials who provided copies of conversion documents.
They also converted their three youngest children — Emahnuel, Yahudeth and Rephaela. Their youngest child, Yerusha, was born several months after the family became Jewish.
The couple has legal guardianship of the two grandchildren who arrived with them in Israel, both of whom are Jewish, Meyers said.
Officials at the University of Judaism remember the Yaisraels both for their distinctive garb, which reminded some of the way the biblical patriarchs are thought to have dressed, and their devotion to Judaism.
“They were very observant, keeping kosher and dressing religiously,” said Rabbi Neal Weinberg, director of the University’s conversion court. “They seemed sincere.”
Even then they spoke of their desire to immigrate to the Jewish state.
“They were so happy to be making their life in Israel,” recalled Lillian Zelcer, administrative secretary for the Los Angeles office of the Rabbinical Assembly, and the “mikvah lady” at the University of Judaism, who got to know them as they pursued their goal of joining the Jewish people.