Let my people in: The case of the Venezuela Nine
In a small city in Venezuela, there are nine Jews. Five adults, two teens, two children. They pray the same prayers you do. They celebrate the same holidays you do. They worry about the safety of their children and of the Jewish people, like you do.
And yet, they do not have the same rights as a Jew that you do. With rising levels of crime, political unrest and anti-Semitism in their native country, they have decided to seek refuge in the Jewish homeland, under the Law of Return. But as of now, this refuge has not been granted. As their rabbi and mentor, I would like to share their story with you.
In 2011, I was contacted by a small chavurah in the city of Maracay. These people had been meeting in private homes for quite a while to practice Judaism, celebrate Shabbat and Jewish holidays, and learn Jewish text. They were now seeking rabbinic guidance to take their chavurah to the next level, since, without exception, none of the people in the group had been born Jewish.
A synagogue with no Jews might seem like an odd idea, but it is one that is being replicated in hundreds, if not thousands, of places throughout the globe. As you read these lines, there are countless people reading your rabbi’s blog in Nigeria, studying Talmud through YouTube videos in Bolivia and learning to kasher their kitchens in Serbia from a Chabad website. The Jewish community has invested the past 20 years in filling the internet with Jewish content destined for Jews. But the internet, unlike some of our institutions, has no doors, and our message has ended up resonating in the most unlikely of places. These emergent communities, made up exclusively or for the most part out of converts, are a new, wonderful and challenging feature of the global Jewish landscape.
As a rabbi whose passion is to assist emergent communities in the Spanish-speaking world, I was very happy to get to know these amazing Venezuelan families and honored to be their rabbi. After a long process of virtual and face-to-face learning (averaging five hours a week for over three years), I led a rabbinic court of three Conservative rabbis, which converted them to Judaism in February 2014. Finally, this group of people went from practicing Judaism to being a Jewish community. As such, they continued to live their Jewish lives in their small chavurah, learning weekly with me (which they do to this very day), celebrating Shabbat together, defending Israel among their neighbors and acquaintances as the official narrative in their country turned more sharply against the Jewish state, and sharing the joys and the pains of everyday life.
In early 2015, they started attending an ulpan offered by the Zionist Federation in Caracas (a three-hour car ride each way). Through this experience, they were invited to do something that most people in emergent congregations in Latin America never even dream of doing: join a historical, established Jewish community. A small congregation in a neighboring city invited them to complete their minyan, and they have been active members of this congregation since June 2015.
Last April, with the crisis in Venezuela escalating, with food and medicine shortages, with rampant crime in the streets, the community decided to make aliyah and move to Israel. It is a founding principle that the State of Israel offers a refuge to every Jew. Per a decision of the Israeli Supreme Court, this includes anyone who converts to Judaism in the Diaspora, regardless of the denomination through which they converted.
Despite this basic principle, the Ministry of the Interior denied the rights of the Venezuela Nine on the grounds that “they have not been members of a recognized community.” This simply is not the case, as they have been members of an established Jewish community for more than 19 months (which goes beyond the amount of prescribed community participation required by the standards of the Ministry of the Interior). Furthermore, they have been living Jewish lives in community and under rabbinical supervision for far a longer period. In similar cases in Latin America, people who have converted in emergent communities (even people who converted in the same beit din as the Venezuela Nine) have been approved for aliyah. It is clear that the laws that regulate the aliyah of converts are not being applied with the same degree of stringency across the board.
Some cynics may suggest this community converted only to escape the challenge of living in Venezuela. After having worked with this community for more than five years (beginning before the current economic crisis), I know its members converted out of a clear sense of love for the God and the people of Israel. There would be no other reason for them to open themselves to the anti-Semitism that they now experience. Anyone who has experienced the deep beauty and power of Judaism need not be surprised that others have found meaning in this tradition, even when they have discovered it in contexts that might not be familiar to most Jews in established communities.
The case of the Venezuela Nine is not a theoretical question about the nature of Jewish identity or another protracted appendix of the “Who is a Jew?” debate. It is a situation of pikuach nefesh — the obligation to save life. This is exactly the situation for which the State of Israel was founded: a group of Jews are seeking refuge from danger in their home country.
If institutionally or personally you have any sway on the conversation in the Jewish community and, especially, in Israel, I ask you not to forsake these nine amazing Jews. Our tradition states it very clearly, but the following truth needs to be repeated today: Converts are Jews, part of our people; they share in our tribulations and should be warranted the same tools of consolation and safeguarding, whether in Israel or abroad.
Every Jew who cares about our community and about the future of the State of Israel must stand with them.
RABBI JUAN MEJIA is a Jewish educator and activist on behalf of emergent communities in Latin America and around the world. He is a rabbi in residence for Be’chol Lashon.