For David Ben Moshe, a former Baltimore resident who converted to Orthodox Judaism, aliyah was a dream.
But it is a dream that dwells in prolonged limbo because of obstacles he has faced in dealing with Israeli bureaucracy.
Currently living in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Ramat Motsa, Ben Moshe grew up in Mount Airy and later lived in downtown Baltimore, near the Federal Hill area, for more than seven years, he said.
“Growing up was kind of tough,” Ben Moshe said. “I grew up in an area with no close family around, and I was the only person of color that I was around most times.” He was one of about 40 students of color at the 1,400-student Linganore High School in Frederick.
In 2010, he was arrested and convicted of drug and firearms charges and was sentenced to 30 months behind bars.
During his incarceration, he was once stuck in a lockdown in the prison library when he noticed a fellow inmate reading a book in an unfamiliar language, which turned out to be a text of the Torah. Having little else to do, Ben Moshe began asking the reader questions on the subject material, unexpectedly finding himself ever more intrigued by the answers.
“The thing that really got me initially,” Ben Moshe said, “was the idea of different interpretations. … What interested me was that he had different commentators at the bottom of the page giving different opinions about what different verses meant.”
Ben Moshe was raised in fundamentalist evangelical Christianity, which he described as emphasizing the acceptance of only a single way of thinking. “The idea you could have a holy religious book,” he said, “and in it you would have different people giving different interpretations that sometimes contradicted with each other about what the holy word of Hashem says, just blew my mind as far as what religion could be and how to approach it.”
The new interest led Ben Moshe to more and more studying, eventually converting to Orthodox Judaism through B’nai Israel, he said. There, he has been called “a paradigm for teshuva” by Rabbi Etan Mintz. “Not only has he transformed his life, but he has utilized his past as a catalyst for tremendous good.
“[W]e should all be inspired by David’s passion and love for Eretz Yisrael,” Mintz said.
Some aspects of Judaism took some getting used to, Ben Moshe said, such as not using electronics on Shabbat and keeping kosher. Other aspects, though, he welcomed, such as the support he could count on from the Jewish community, such as when strangers were glad to host him for Shabbat dinners.
Ben Moshe eventually decided to immigrate to Israel. The decision came partly from “the hand of Hashem” and partly from the type of treatment he received in the United States. Having previously gone on a Birthright trip to Israel, he recalled feeling a deep connection to the nation. He later signed up for a three-month pilot trip through the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, during which he met his future wife, Tamar. The couple are currently raising their daughter, Ayala, and are expecting another child in February.
Two years and eight months after first applying for Israeli citizenship, little progress has been made.
According to Ben Moshe, he has faced a byzantine administrative body and has received varying messages from the Israeli bureaucracy regarding his immigration process, such as that his conversion was not adequate or that his criminal history is causing a delay.
According to Ben Moshe, he and his wife have had to spend an inordinate amount of time getting and translating documents or standing in line at the ministry, on some occasions spending 20 to 30 hours at the ministry in a given week.
Following his release from the American prison system, Ben Moshe pursued and received a bachelor’s degree in physical therapy from Towson University, where he graduated magna cum laude with a 4.0 GPA. However, without citizenship or a proper work visa, Ben Moshe explained, he is not permitted to seek a career in physical therapy or to work in general, putting his family in financial hardship.
Furthermore, following the birth of their daughter, Ben Moshe said, the hospital would not allow them to leave without paying a 5,000 shekel bill, on account of his wife being married to a non-citizen. To get reimbursed, his wife had to spend the day after her pregnancy receiving a certificate at a national insurance office with her newborn daughter in hand.
Currently, Ben Moshe is being legally represented in this matter by Rabbi Seth Farber of the advocacy organization ITIM.
“Even though he was completely observant and thus eligible for full recognition here, it wasn’t documented in a way that met the criteria of the state,” Farber said. “And that’s why he got a lot of mixed messages from the government authorities here in Israel.
“There were a lot of mistakes made by the Ministry of Interior,” Farber continued, “and the most fundamental mistake … is that instead of embracing converts, there’s often an attitude that we need to distance them.”
According to the Jerusalem Post, the Population and Immigration Authority noted Ben Moshe’s criminal history. “The applicant has a criminal history and the reason that he has only been given a residency permit stems from these reasons and no other ones,” the Population and Immigration Authority said in a December article.
Ben Moshe said his experience has made him feel like he is being “sent in circles.”
Farber said he expects his client to receive Israeli citizenship within the year or potentially within weeks, while Ben Moshe himself has vowed to continue pursuing Israeli citizenship “for the rest of my life if need be.”