Black convert family finally granted Israeli citizenship

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The family, which is black, converted to Judaism under Conservative auspices in the United States a decade ago.

"We're strictly kosher, keep all of the holidays and the Torah is part of our life," Elazar Yisrael said in a telephone interview from the Israeli town of Beit Shemesh. "That's the reason we moved to this country."

Citizenship under Israel's Law of Return is granted automatically to any Jew who makes aliyah, including those who convert to Judaism under non-Orthodox auspices in the diaspora.

But when Elazar Yisrael's wife and children first arrived in Israel in May, the family was detained at Israel's Ben-Gurion Airport and told they would have to leave the country. After the Masorti, or Conservative, movement in Israel intervened, they were allowed to stay temporarily while their status was decided.

The status of two grandchildren, ages 7 and 8, of whom the couple has legal custody, has yet to be determined.

Some involved in advocating for the family charged racism.

"The fact that they were black from the Chicago area and people of colorful dress raised suspicion that they were Black Hebrews, which they are not," said Dan Evron, the attorney representing the Yisrael family on behalf of the Masorti movement.

The Black Hebrews are a sect of about 1,250 members who started immigrating to Israel from Chicago in 1969. Tension between the group's members and the Israeli government eased after they were granted temporary resident status in 1990.

The Yisraels lived only briefly in the Chicago area, where they were members of a Conservative synagogue. Most of their life together was spent in Los Angeles.

Life in Israel for them had been on hold until their legal status was resolved.

Asked how he feels about Israel after the trouble his family has faced, Elazar Yisrael said: "I don't hold anything in my heart against anyone. I'm just thankful to God and the Conservative movement who went totally to bat for me.

"Hopefully now that everything's all over with, I'd like to let bygones be bygones and really settle down."