According to both him and his rabbi, Jared Armstrong is Jewish.
But according to the state of Israel, Armstrong is not Jewish enough to gain the birthright citizenship that the state promises.
The 24-year-old, who is Black and grew up in Philadelphia, is trying to make aliyah “because it’s my right,” he said. After Armstrong’s two-year basketball career at Division II Slippery Rock University in western Pennsylvania ended, Hapoel Haifa, an Israeli professional basketball team, recruited him to play because of his Jewish background.
Israeli officials, though, have rejected his citizenship application twice, with the second denial coming on Feb. 9. They told Armstrong they thought he spent nine months converting to Conservative Judaism through Rabbi Michael Beals in Wilmington just because he wanted to play pro basketball in the Jewish state.
But Armstrong says he only went through the conversion process because Israel’s Interior Ministry wouldn’t recognize his Jewish background. Armstrong’s mother, Lou Ellen Butler, converted before he was born with Congregation Beth El in Philadelphia, a nondenominational synagogue. Israel’s Law of Return requires those making aliyah to be affiliated with a denomination.
So, Armstrong converted. Yet it still wasn’t enough for officials who doubted his sincerity.
Armstrong believes race is a factor.
“They saw a Jew of color who wanted to play a sport, and they thought that wasn’t sincere,” he said.
Beals, who leads Congregation Beth Shalom in Wilmington, agrees.
“His motives are insincere because he’s an African American who wants to play basketball,” the rabbi said, referring to the judgment from Israeli officials. “That’s the only reason.”
A Feb. 10 Jewish Telegraphic Agency story compared Armstrong’s case to other recent immigration cases involving Jews of color.
Between December and January, the Interior Ministry denied the applications of “a Ugandan man who converted with the Conservative movement” and a Black Jew who “had not spent adequate time in the community where he converted after he became Jewish,” according to the JTA report. The second man, David Ben Moshe, got his decision overturned before being rejected again because he “had been convicted of a crime in the United States.”
“They put a spin on why they deny you so it doesn’t sound racist,” Armstrong said.
According to Beals, Armstrong was born Jewish because his mother converted before she gave birth to him. And growing up, the Philadelphian was very much Jewish, he said.
He went to synagogue, observed the High Holy days and kept Shabbat; Armstrong’s mother didn’t allow him to play sports on Saturday.
“We kept it all day until the sun went down,” he said.
When Armstrong was between the ages of 10 and 12, though, his parents got divorced and he stopped going to Congregation Beth El. He never had a bar mitzvah and drifted away from the strict observance of his boyhood years.
But his sense of identity never left him; the teenager and then-collegian always knew he was Jewish in his “heart and soul,” as he described it.
At the same time, Armstrong was doing his best to make it as a basketball player.
He scored more than 1,000 career points in just three seasons at Christopher Dock Mennonite High School in Lansdale. Then he graduated from Virginia-based Fork Union Military Academy before spending a year in Maryland at Mount Zion Prep, recording more than 16 points per game for both teams.
After missing his freshman season at the College of Central Florida, he bounced back at Butler Community College in Kansas and then transferred to Slippery Rock. In 2018-’19 and 2019-’20, he averaged double-digit points and came away convinced he could play professionally.
Yet his only option was in Israel, so he applied for citizenship.
Upon rejection, he began studying with Beals, who knew Armstrong’s aunt from her attendance at his services.
Armstrong went into the mikveh and spent nine months studying “every aspect of Judaism” over Zoom due to COVID, the rabbi said. He showed up every week, and his conversion was approved by the required Beit Din, or house of judgment, of “three knowledgeable Jews,” as Beals described it.
Yet in addition to doubting Armstrong’s sincerity, the Israeli government said it couldn’t accept classes conducted on Zoom. During those virtual classes, Beals never doubted his student’s authenticity.
“He was very passionate. I could look at his face,” the rabbi said. “I’m hoping somebody will step in, overturn this and say, ‘This is not who we are.’”
Armstrong is appealing the decision. He is in Israel on a visa and his family is supporting him.
“It’s heartbreaking because you grow up a Jew, and then you’re being told you’re not a Jew,” he said. “Only God can tell you who you are.”
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