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After five years of waiting, American convert finally granted Israeli citizenship

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David Ben Moshe, a Black American convert to Judaism, obtained Israeli citizenship on Thursday, bringing to a close a five-year struggle against bureaucracy, inefficiency and purported bigotry.

“I am [feeling] absolutely incredible today,” Ben Moshe told The Times of Israel, just after he received the official documentation confirming his status as a new immigrant.

“I’ve been suffering and punished and dragged through an unjust process for five years, and it’s all over. And now I can get to building my life in Israel with my wife, my two children and — be’ezrat Hashem [with God’s help] — more children,” he said.

Ben Moshe, born David Bonett, was raised in a Christian household in Maryland. As a young man, he got involved in the drug trade in Baltimore. In 2010, he was convicted and sentenced to 30 months in prison on drug and firearms charges. While in prison he became interested in Judaism, after seeing another inmate studying a Hebrew text.

When he was released, he approached an Orthodox rabbi in Baltimore, Rabbi Etan Mintz of the B’nai Israel synagogue, to inquire about converting. He completed his conversion — as well as a bachelor’s degree from Towson University — in 2017 and came to Israel shortly thereafter to study at Jerusalem’s Pardes Institute, a pluralistic educational program. There he met Tamar Gesser, who would later become his wife.

“I found Hashem in prison,” he said, using a Hebrew term for God. “Becoming a Jew changed my life so much for the better.”

David Ben Moshe with his wife Tamar and their two children in an undated photograph. (Courtesy David Ben Moshe)

Ben Moshe, 35, first applied for Israeli citizenship in May 2018 but was rebuffed, with the Population and Immigration Authority citing his criminal record as well as technical issues regarding his conversion. (For his marriage in 2018, his conversion was accepted by Israel’s Chief Rabbinate, which tends to be far stricter on such matters than the Interior Ministry, making the office’s objections all the more unusual.)

Since then, he has lived in Israel on student and work visas, which he had to annually renew, leaving him in at times in a Kafkaesque limbo as his appeals to the Interior Ministry worked their way through the system. The situation left him without state-provided healthcare, made it difficult for him and his wife officially register their marriage, and generally left him fighting tooth and nail against an unyielding bureaucracy. Ben Moshe said he was told by some ministry officials that he doesn’t “look like a convert,” and had his Judaism questioned.

In protest of his immigration status, last year Ben Moshe went on a hunger strike. With help from the ITIM organization, a religious advocacy group, Ben Moshe eventually negotiated a deal with the Interior Ministry, which agreed in January 2022 to grant him citizenship on January 1, 2023, adding a further buffer year to prove that he had not returned to criminal activity.

Last week, Ben Moshe made an appointment to apply for citizenship at the Population Authority office in Beersheba, where he now lives, on Thursday at 8 a.m., only to once again encounter an infuriatingly inefficient bureaucracy.

David Ben Moshe, right, with his wife Tamar and their two children on a hike in Israel, in an undated photograph. (Courtesy/David Ben Moshe)

“I went with my lawyer. When we tried to go in, they said, ‘You made the wrong appointment. You need to come in next week,’” Ben Moshe said.

After pleading his case before two managers and a clerk, at 9:30 a.m. he was allowed into the Population and Immigration Authority office, but had to wait for another hour and a half as his 8 a.m. appointment had long since passed.

Once he finally sat with a clerk who brought in his file, which after nearly five years was “about four inches thick,” Ben Moshe said he again had to fill out a long immigration application, despite having done so multiple times in the past.

He and his lawyer got up to leave, anticipating that it would take at least several days if not weeks to receive a response, but were pleasantly surprised to learn that it would be much faster than that.

“They said, ‘It will take half an hour or an hour. We’ll send it to headquarters right now,’” Ben Moshe recounted.

“We sat down to wait. I was reading the autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. And then they came out to us and said, ‘We just heard back from headquarters: you’ve been approved,’” he said.

For now, Ben Moshe has a temporary citizenship document, or teudat zehut, and an immigrant visa in his American passport. Within the next week or two, he should receive his permanent ID card.

Ben Moshe said this week that he was still in shock from the good news.

“I am still… I still don’t know how to respond,” he said. “It’s like my entire world has changed. I love Israel so much. I want to be part of the Jewish state.”

Rabbi Seth Farber, the head of ITIM, said Ben Moshe’s case was unbelievable, both his personal journey and the lengthy legal fight for his citizenship, but that the result was “glorious.”

“David’s story defies the imagination, but it is ultimately a story of repentance and redemption,” Farber told The Times of Israel. “Over the course of the years that ITIM represented David, there were many ups and downs, but we never lost faith that justice would be done and the State of Israel would fully embrace David and his family.”

Rabbi Seth Farber, head of ITIM (Courtesy)

Farber, whose job often requires him to clash with the Interior Ministry, said he too was still in awe of the fact that the government made good on its promise to give Ben Moshe citizenship this year.

“I don’t even know what to do with myself now that they’ve said yes. I’m happy to give them credit,” he said, singling out the head of the Population Authority’s visa division, Ronit Elian, for praise.

“ITIM will continue to advocate for the more than 4,000 people who turn to us each year, and continue to work to make Israel more respectful and responsive to the Jewish needs of the Jewish people,” he said.

Rabbi Dov Lipman, whose organization Yad L’Olim also assisted Ben Moshe behind the scenes, also hailed the good news.

“I am so happy for David. It has been a very challenging process but his faith never waivered. We at Yad L’Olim pushed as hard as we could to influence the relevant ministers and government authorities and will continue to do so for all prospective immigrants who have struggles in their aliyah process,” he said.

One of Ben Moshe’s first acts as an Israeli citizen will be to leave the country. He and his family plan on traveling to the US for a speaking tour, he said, where he will meet with different communities — Jewish and Black — to discuss Israel, antisemitism, and Black-Jewish ties.

“My plan is to build my life in Eretz Yisrael (the land of Israel) and to continue to give back to the Jewish people. I actually have a trip planned for next month. We’ll be going to the States to talk about Israel, to tell people that, yes, it’s a flawed country — I’m the first to say what it does wrong — but just because our government does wrong things sometimes doesn’t mean it’s not still a great place to live. It’s still an amazing place,” he said.

“And I’ll be talking about Black and Jewish relationships and try to build ties between both communities that I’m part of.”

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