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 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 six-month correspondence between the Jewish Agency and the Interior Ministry, the Venezuelans were notified two weeks ago that their Israeli immigration requests had been rejected — a move that 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 in the Colombian city of Barranquilla, told the Israeli daily Haaretz. “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, who said that the Prime Minister’s Office in Israel had ignored requests to help. Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky is said to be considering intervening with Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, who leads the Sephardi 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,” Sharansky said. “Far too often, there is no legitimate mechanism for appealing decisions once they’ve been made.”
In November, the rabbi who oversaw the conversions, Juan Mejia, confirmed that the Venezuelans 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,” according to Haaretz.
A Washington Post article published Sunday said about 6,000 to 9,000 Jews remain in Venezuela, which has a general population of approximately 30 million. 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 number from three years earlier.