Ukrainians trying to convert to Judaism in Israel face Kafkaesque trials

Published date25 May 2023
Publication titleJerusalem Post, The: Web Edition Articles (Israel)
After converting to Judaism in 2022, fleeing Ukraine, coming to Israel and enduring a bureaucratic battle that lasted a year, Yael and her family have finally become full-fledged Israeli citizens. They are home

The story of Yael and Aaron Agpov was first documented by Zvika Klein in The Jerusalem Post in April 2022. The couple and their four children – two from Yael's first marriage and two whom they had together – were living in Dnipro, the fourth-largest city in Ukraine. Yael, who was then known as Yulia, became interested in Judaism and began to attend services at the synagogue in Dnipro.

In 2019, Yael started to take classes given by Rabbi Shmuel Kaminetsky, chief rabbi of Dnipro and the Dnepropetrovsk region. Her husband also became interested in Judaism and began participating in classes.

After an extended period of study, in January 2022 the couple and their two younger children were converted by Rabbi Yosef Hanoch Brodbecker of Kyiv, whose conversions are approved by Israel's Chief Rabbinate. Yael and Aaron planned to live in Dnipro as members of the city's Chabad community and were not planning to move to Israel.

On February 24, 2022, Russia attacked Ukraine, and their lives, like those of millions of other Ukrainians, changed forever.

"When the shelling started," recalls Yael, "we were afraid. We drove outside the city and headed west, passing through Ukraine." Yael and Aaron and the children finally arrived in Warsaw. When they arrived at a hotel that the Jewish Agency was using to house refugees preparing for aliyah, agency officials told them they could not stay there because they were not eligible.

The struggle to undergo Orthodox conversion in Israel

The Agpovs had undergone Orthodox conversion by a rabbi approved by Israel's Chief Rabbinate. Why were they not eligible to make aliyah and become Israeli citizens? Rabbi Seth Farber, founder and head of ITIM – a nonprofit organization that helps people navigate Israel's religious bureaucracy – has been advocating on behalf of the Agpov family since they arrived in Israel. He explains that several conditions must be fulfilled for converts to obtain Israeli citizenship. First, the conversion must take place in a recognized, well-established Jewish community. Second, the convert must live in the Jewish community for at least nine months before the conversion, including a study program of at least nine months. Finally, the convert must be an active member of the community where the conversion took...

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