In the Footsteps of The Black Jews of Harlem
This series was previously published in WAX Digital Magazine, 2017–2018
On the corner of West 123rd Street, across from Marcus Garvey Park, sits an elegant, brown-brick townhouse. Grecian columns flank its doorway, supporting an ornate arch that circumscribes a fresco. According to a report from the Landmarks Preservation Commission, the building is “a particularly fine example of the neo-Renaissance style” of architecture. This mansion once belonged to John Dwight, the millionaire manufacturer of Arm and Hammer baking soda. Its grandeur is only slightly dampened by the fact that it is under construction. A circular hole in the center of the fresco awaits a window, and a bare steel slab serves as a front door. Notices from the New York City Department of Buildings, affixed to the wrought-iron fence that separates the building from the street, state that only limited renovations may be conducted on the house’s externals.
The Dwight House has had a motley history. Among other things, it’s served as a private clinic, an art school for the WPA, and a SRO housing unit. But for nearly half a century, the house, which was designated a historic landmark in 1971, served a very different sort of public. It was home to the Commandment Keepers Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation: the hub of a vibrant — if small — Black Israelite community.
The renovations on the Dwight House are the last visible reminder of an era of Black Judaism in Harlem. The blocks adjoining Malcolm X Boulevard from 120th to 130th street are peppered with buildings that, for decades, bore Hebrew names. 4 West 121 Street, an apartment building, used to be B’nai Adath Kol Yisroel. 204 Malcolm X Boulevard is now an empty lot, but was once the site of Kohol Beth B’nai Yisroel, a dynamic synagogue with a young rabbi, that competed with the Commandment Keepers for worshipers in the 1950s. Back then, the Commandment Keepers had not yet acquired the Dwight House. Their congregation was located above a drug store on 87 West 128th Street, a lot that today is taken up by a Mormon Church.
To the casual observer, the Black Israelite community has vanished without a trace. The glass doors of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints on West 128th Street hold pictures of an angelic, white Jesus, captioned: “Learn principles of peace from the Prince of Peace.” Reporting for this article, I lingered one afternoon on the corner of 128th and Malcolm X, watching as a small group of young white men in crisp parochial uniforms stepped onto the curb. No one would guess that, just sixty years ago, this corner was alive with Black Israelite religious life.
The Birth of a Community
Dr. Jeffrey Gurock, a Harlem historian and professor at Yeshiva University, described the bustle that was once the Black Israelite community: “They had their own butcher shops, they had stores, they had their own community in the Central Harlem district.” Today, that community is all but gone. The Black Israelite synagogues have migrated: to Brooklyn, the Bronx, Newark, Chicago, and Jamaica. But their roots are here, in Harlem, where the oldest Black Israelite synagogue remained active until 2007.
For Rabbi Wentworth Arthur Matthew, who founded the Commandment Keepers congregation in 1919, roots were important. The Commandment Keepers began as a search for the African roots that Rabbi Matthew believed slavery had destroyed. According to Matthew, African-Americans were actually Israelites, the children of the marriage of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. His claims may seem quasi-mythical, but in a society under the sway of Jim Crow, and in a year known for the most violent race riots in American history, Matthew’s narrative presented Harlem’s black community with a proud vision of African identity. Howard Brotz, a sociologist and “good friend” of Rabbi Matthew, recorded how one congregant expressed Jewish identity in his 1963 book, The Black Jews of Harlem. “When I stand before the Torah,” the congregant said, “and hear what God told our fathers and mothers, and what we have lost, it’s made me a new person.”
The search for African-American identity is an old one. According to Gurock, the Black Israelites “fit into the narrative of African Americans moving away from Christianity and the revival of black nationalism in Harlem.” It’s clear that Rabbi Matthew stands in the footsteps of Macus Garvey, of whom he was a self-professed admirer. But the group’s self-understanding is more complex than as a simple movement of black nationalism. In his essay “Who Are We?” for the website of the International Israelite Board of Rabbis, Rabbi Shlomo Ben Levy acknowledges the social and political significance of Rabbi Matthew’s message for African-Americans. With his vision of blacks’ royal heritage, Matthew “instill[ed] pride in a people who were being humiliated through institutionalized racism and cultural bigotry.” But Rabbi Levy — who is a tenured Professor of History at Northampton Community College — also gives credence to Matthew’s claims of Judaic descent. He points to Hebraic practices among African peoples, which originate in “an early but unclear source.” The source of such practices, says Levy, may very well be descent from the “ten lost tribes,” whose progeny somehow wound up in West Africa. “In some respects, they see themselves as the most legitimate Jews historically,” Gurock notes.
But the group also believes that, as Levy puts it, “whatever the historical truth was, the present reality is that G-d is spirit and those who worship Him must ‘worship Him in spirit’ instead of pigmentation.” All Jewish communities, says Levy, have crafted “traditions” of belonging “that come out of their own histories.” There is no reason that the Black Israelites cannot participate in a similar process of group definition. For Levy, the group’s connection to Judaism rests on something more than anthropological claims. He sees a connection between the African experience and the prophecies of the Hebrew Bible — a connection that he and other Israelites believe cannot be mere coincidence. As he points out, the biblical prophecies of Israel “being scattered all over the world, being carried in slave ships to distant lands, and of being forced to worship alien gods,” strikingly parallel the black experience in America.
The relationship between the Black Israelites and the broader Jewish community has been somewhat mixed. Although some Black Israelites have undergone formal Jewish conversion, many Israelite leaders question the need to seek affirmation of their identity from Jews of European descent. Most Israelite communities accept a doctrine of Shuva, which states that lost Jews can reclaim their faith without external conversion rites. As Levy writes, “in their hearts and minds,” the followers of Rabbi Matthew “were not converting to Judaism — they were reclaiming part of their legacy.” As true Israelites, the Black Jews of Harlem saw no need to seek affirmation elsewhere.
The Commandment Keepers lost the Dwight House in 2007, amid a legal dispute between rival factions of the synagogue. And with the loss of the building, the Black Israelite community seems to have left Harlem behind. The Commandment Keepers’ newest synagogue is in Newark, and of the seven active synagogues listed on the website of the International Israelite Board of Rabbis, none are located in Harlem. Asked why the Black Israelites abandoned the neighborhood, Dr. Gurock says he can only guess that the move is in line with Harlem’s recent gentrification. Higher property prices may have forced the congregation to seek sanctuary elsewhere and made more distant pastures attractive places for the community’s growth. Certainly, the Black Israelites are thriving. Black Israelite synagogues now exist in four states — New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Illinois. The group has even established ties to communities in Africa.
As they approach their one hundredth anniversary, there are signs that the Black Israelites are seeking a closer relationship with mainstream Judaism and — perhaps — a higher national profile. Rabbi Capers Funnye, who was appointed Chief Rabbi in 2015, is a member of the interdenominational Chicago Board of Rabbis and sits on the Jewish Council of Urban Affairs. He is also the cousin of Michelle Obama. Funnye seems likely to inaugurate a new era of Black Israelite leadership; in his first address as Chief Rabbi, he called for Israelites to “establish a Halacha” — the Jewish term for a standard code of practice — “for our community.” But even as the group continues to evolve, it solidifies its century-long religious tradition. The Commandment Keepers website lists an “unbroken chain of Torah transmission” that hearkens back to Rabbi Matthew.
Since passing from the hands of the Commandment Keepers, the fate of the Dwight House has followed a form of poetic logic. From a black community in search of identity, the house transferred to Darryl Pinckney, a black novelist and essayist on the African-American experience. (Pinckney’s most recent book, Black Deutschland, chronicles a protagonist who moves to Berlin because he “wanted to live where authority had little interest in black men.”) Pinckney is married to James Fenton, an English poet who made his fortune writing the lines for the stage production of Les Misérables. The couple intends to restore the house to its original use as a single-family home, a project that they imagined would be complete by 2018. “It is for me a rather resonant and historical landscape,” Pinckney told the Wall Street Journal when the couple bought the home in 2010. “I find it moving to plan my old age here.”
Collapse of a Community: The Migration of Harlem’s Black Jews
This series was previously published in WAX Digital Magazine, 2017–2018
It’s been a decade since the Black Jews called Harlem their home. Where there are now apartment buildings and empty lots, vibrant synagogues once were active, preaching the doctrine that blacks in America are the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. According to Roberta Gold, a Visiting Assistant Professor of History and American Studies at Fordham, there were at least four different Black Jewish sects that started in Harlem in the early twentieth century. Rabbi Arnold Ford started Beth Banai Abraham at 459 Lennox avenue — a lot today occupied by a dry-cleaners. Rabbi Mordecai Herman founded the Moorish Zionist Temple in 1921, and the Ever Live sect may have begun as early as 1917, under the leadership of Elder W. Robinson. But the Commandment Keepers of 1 West 123 street (or as some records have it, 31 Mount Morris Park), founded by Wentworth Arthur Matthew, were by far the most prominent Black Jewish sect. They have endured as a lasting movement, with affiliated synagogues in Newark, Brooklyn, the Bronx, Jamaica, Philadelphia and Chicago.
The Commandment Keepers keep a low profile, but to their members they are community. David Cobb grew up attending Congregation Beth Shalom, one of the Commandment Keepers’ sister synagogues in Brooklyn. “My Abba was the president of the congregation for a number of years, and he was well loved there,” Cobb told me via Facebook chat. “[This was] in the middle of Bed-Stuy, close to the Marcy projects, to give you a visual.” Cobb lives in Denver, but he still thinks fondly of his years as a congregant at Beth Shalom. “There’s something special about praying together,” he said.
For many Harlem residents, the Black Jews have faded from memory. A group of middle-aged women relaxing in Marcus Garvey Park drew a blank when I asked if they knew that a large Black Jewish synagogue was once active a few blocks away. Their response was typical. Another woman, who was caring for children at play, frowned when I asked if she had heard of the Black Jews of Harlem. “I don’t live here, I just work here,” she replied. “But I don’t know anything about that.”
Some residents identified the Black Jews with a group of street preachers, often active in the plaza of the Adam Powell Jr. State Office Building. “Black Jews? You don’t mean those people preaching?” said one woman, sitting alongside an elderly woman in a wheelchair. “They’re usually out by CVS, on weekends.” A man chatting outside a shop near 126th street gave a similar reply. “Black Jews? Yes there are! You can find them on 125th street by the State Building.” And when the nanny responded quizzically to my mention of Black Jews, a woman sitting nearby quickly corrected her. “There are many Black Jews in the area. I myself identify as a Black Jew. I can’t give you a lot of information, I’m still learning myself. But ask around on the streets — look for someone African.”
If the street-preachers identify as Black Jews, however, they are at least officially unaffiliated with the Commandment Keepers’ movement. “There are the ones who shouldn’t be preaching,” Cobb said, with a nod to the preachers. The story of Cobb’s community — the Black Jewish movement founded by Rabbi Matthew — remains largely unknown to most contemporary Harlem residents. From a thriving community of several hundred members, it seems to have vanished without a trace.
Where did they go?
The Talmud — the traditional collection of Jewish theology, law, and lore — claims that the Jerusalem Temple was destroyed due to strife within the Jewish community. The fate of the Commandment Keepers’ synagogue seems to have followed a similar logic. The Dwight House — the Commandment Keepers mansion home on West 123rd — was sold amidst a fight between rival factions of the congregation. Rabbi Shlomo Levy, leader of Beth Elohim Hebrew Congregation and the author of several essays on the website of the International Israelite Board of Rabbis, likened the conflict to the feudbetween the Montagues and Capulets in Romeo and Juliet.
The trouble began when the movement’s leader, Rabbi Wentworth Matthew, passed away. Rabbi Matthew, whose friend and ethnographer Howard Brotz described him as “the vocal and most charming leader of Harlem’s largest Black Jewish congregation,” elected his 17-year-old grandson, David Dore, as his spiritual successor, granting the young Dore rabbinical ordination shortly before his death. However, a fight soon broke out between Dore and Rabbi Chaim White, one of Matthew’s senior disciples, over who would lead the synagogue. Relations between the two men — and their supporters — eventually reached an all-time low. Rabbi Dore was locked out of the synagogue and banned from preaching; his son’s Bar-Mitzvah was held on a curb in 1994, because his family was not allowed to use the sanctuary. Rabbi Levy remembers these events “like a child who grew up in a dysfunctional family. We simply wanted the fighting to end and prayed that the wonderful times we shared together with the combatants when we were as one unified and harmonious family could return.”
But it was not to be. Congregants grew frustrated with the endless fighting, and synagogue membership declined; at one point, some 200 people were barred from attending service. Amid falling attendance, the board of the Commandment Keepers — all men in their seventies and eighties — decided to sell the Dwight House. “It may be that they feared that the building might have fallen into the hands of their nemesis should they die or retire,” reflected Rabbi Levy. Whatever the reason, the decision to sell the synagogue was a mortal blow to the community, for whom the building had been a flagship for forty-five years. When the synagogue stopped functioning, the Black Jews dispersed.
However, the Commandment Keepers didn’t go without a fight. Since 2007, when the board sold the synagogue, a nearly continuous succession of lawsuits has been active to reclaim ownership of the building from its purchasers, known in court records as simply 31 Mount Morris Park, LLC. In 2009, the New York State Supreme Court ruled in the company’s favor. A court order in the curved handwriting of Justice Richard Braun granted “summary judgement, declaring that said defendant [31 Mount Morris Park, LLC] is the record owner of the subject real property.” An appellate court decision affirmed the verdict in 2010. Because the synagogue board had been the property’s legal owners, the Commandment Keepers’ claims were not deemed legally viable.
The End of an Era
They may be few in number, but at least a handful of Harlemites know the story of the Black Jews. “They’re not here no more,” said one resident, standing outside a dry-cleaners on Malcolm X. “They used to be here. I think they sold it [the Dwight House] to remodel it as condominiums. That’s what they’re doing with everything around here.” The man, who preferred to remain anonymous, is right in part; the real estate company that bought the Dwight mansion was planning to turn it into condos when the 2008 recession hit. Then in 2010, they sold it to Daryl Pinckney and James Fenton, the couple that owns the Dwight House today. Pinckney and Fenton are engaged in a massive project to restore the house to its former glory as a single-family estate, using design plans obtained from the heirs of John Dwight. “We are sure that had we not been the buyers, this battered house would have been gut-renovated,” the couple wrote in 2015. “Its curved mahogany doors [would have been] slung in the Dumpster [sic]. Instead, they are on their hinges to stay, 125 years after they were hung there.” In addition to living in the house, when it’s finished, Fenton and Pinckney are considering opening it to the public for cultural events.
To the Commandment Keepers, however, the building’s renovations, which included removing the Jewish star that adorned the building’s front entrance and replacing it with a cast-lead window, are the last chapter in an enduring tragedy. A file of thirty-seven complaints issued to the New York City Department of Buildings records the community’s frantic attempts to halt construction on the Dwight House. “ILLEGAL CONSTRUCTION AT LOCATION. LOCATION IS DOING CONSTRUCTION WITHOUT PERMITS, PLEASE INVESTIGATE,” reads one complaint from March 2012. Another from June cries, “EVEN THOUGH PERMITS [sic] HAS BEEN ISSUED FROM THE DOB TO CONDUCT WORK IN THE BUILDING. THEY ARE WORKING BEYOND THE SCOPE OF THE PERMITS.” The all-caps of the Department of Building’s filing system captures the panic that the complaints reveal. Almost all of the complaints were resolved the same way. “NO EVIDENCE OF ANY WORK CONTRARY TO PLANS/PERMITS AT TIME OF INSPECTION,” read the comments to one from April 2012.
In their desperate attempt to halt construction, some of the petitioners seem to have forgotten that the Dwight House was declared a landmark for its nineteenth-century architecture — not because it was a temple. The April complaint reads: “THIS IS AN LANDMARK TEMPLE AND THEY ARE DOING EXTENSIVE CONSTRUCTION IN BUILDING THAT IS AGAINST THEIR PERMITS ISSUED TO THEM BY LANDMARKS.” The Department of Building’s restraints against landmark renovation — onerous as they are — resonated with the community’s protectiveness of their synagogue. But despite the group’s efforts, they could not prevent the House from reverting to a neo-renaissance mansion.
One resident of 123rd street remembers the Commandment Keeper’s persistent protests of the Dwight House renovations. He has lived on the block for 30 years and witnessed the building’s gradual transformation back to a historic townhouse. “The English man has it,” he said, referring to James Fenton, who is an English poet. “Every now and then they [the Commandment Keepers] come and look at the building, and pray. They’re still fighting for it. He [Fenton] offered them two point something million dollars for it, but they wanted the synagogue.” He noted that the protests haven’t done much to halt renovations. “They took out the piano, the stuff, all the church stuff.” As of 2013, an attempt to reclaim the building was still ongoing. It seems unlikely, however, that the Black Jews of Harlem will return any time soon. The group is entering a new era, beyond the Harlem borders in which it was born. And like Harlem itself, there is no doubt that it will continue to evolve.
Seriously Mom, What’s a Black Jew?
This series was previously published in WAX Digital Magazine, 2017–2018
Jews have always come in many shades. Tova Ztaoui is a case in point: her mother was from Cuba and her father from Morocco. “My father was very dark, like chocolatey, and my mom was paler than even the most olive-skinned person,” she told me. References to Judaism’s racial diversity appear as early as the Passover story. The Bible records that when the Children of Israel left Egypt, “a great multitude departed with them,” an amalgam of peoples of various races from the Nile delta region.
So, at first glance, it might not seem surprising that Rabbi Capers Funnye, the new Chief Rabbi of the Black Jewish community and a cousin of Michelle Obama’s, feels that Black Jews deserve a seat at the table of Jewish denominations. “I firmly believe that we are one people, we simply come in many shades” Rabbi Funnye told me over the phone. “And I believe that the time has come for a member of our community to become a sitting member on the New York Board of Rabbis.” The New York Board of Rabbis is an interdenominational Jewish council, based in downtown Manhattan, and Funnye, who heads the International Israelite Board of Rabbis, hopes to have a member join by the end of the year.
Whether or not that will happen, however, is an open question. The Black Jewish community, which began in Harlem as a rediscovery of African American roots, lives with the belief that many African Americans are lost members of the Jewish nation. But as Tova Ztaoui reveals, the relationship between the Black Jews and mainstream Judaism is complicated. Skyping from her home in Philadelphia, Tova explained that there’s a difference between “a spiritual right” of Jewishness “that [the Black Jews] have accepted” and being a hereditary Jew of African descent. “They are two very different groups,” she insisted.
That difference became an issue when Tova trained as a docent for the National Museum of American Jewish History. After completing her training, Tova refused to be put on the roster, because she felt the museum didn’t do justice to the experiences of Jews of color. “The museum had one picture, way in a dark corner of an obscure floor, of Black Hebrews. And it’s supposed to encompass the entire experience of anybody of color,” she explained.
Although Tova sympathizes with the Black Jews, she feels that her blood connection to Judaism is something important. For her, conflating her Judaism with that of the Black Jewish community is a misrepresentation of her heritage. When a Black Jew visits her synagogue, people often turn to her for an explanation of the newcomer’s background. “People assume that I know what’s going on,” she said. “But it’s so disrespectful.”
A Matter of Ritual
For a long time, the Black Jews’ place in the spectrum of Jewish identities has been unclear. Rabbi Wentworth Arthur Matthew, who founded the movement in Harlem in 1919, applied twice for membership to the New York Board. He was twice denied, and with his death, most meaningful interaction between Black Jews and mainstream Judaism dissolved, a rejection some have attributed to racism. ‘’Racism in America is so pervasive that nobody wants to have a community of black Jews as such,’’ Rabbi Halilu Paris told the New York Times in 1985. (Rabbi Paris has since passed away; he died in 2014.)
Indeed, racial concerns were certainly one factor that the New York Board may have had on its mind. In an era when Jews still struggled for acceptance in white America — when hotels and clubs had signs reading “No Blacks, No Jews, No Dogs” — it is understandable that the Board wouldn’t have been thrilled at the idea that Jews have “black cousins.” As Roberta Gold, professor of history and American studies at Fordham University, notes, the early years of the Black Jews were a crucial time for Jewish integration in American society. “[T]he interwar years — precisely the time when Black Jewish congregations achieved a consistent presence in Harlem — were a crucial period of transition in American ethno-racial ideology,” she writes. At that time, “Jews were on the cusp of gaining still greater acceptance into the [American] mainstream.” Blacks, on the other hand “had no such opportunity.” In the fight for Jews’ status in America, a warm embrace of the Black Jewish movement would have been a dangerous strategy. As Gold summarizes: “Jews had [much] to lose from being linked to blacks, precisely because they had much to gain from being cast as whites.”
According to many Jews of European descent, however, the sidelining of the Black Jews had more to do with ritual standards than with race. From their perspective, the Black Jews aren’t traditionally Jewish. In the 1960s, the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies interviewed some 400–500 Black Jewish families and reported that it “found very few who could say they were Halakhic Jews.” For their part, the Black Jews claim an ancestral and spiritual connection to the ten lost tribes of Israel. They point to communities like the Ethiopian Falashas and the South African Lemba as proof that Judaism is native to the African continent. And for many Black Jews, the striking parallels between biblical prophecies and the black experience in America confirm that American blacks are forgotten members of the Jewish nation.
Reluctance to Convert
While Halakhic conversion would provide Black Jews with a path to greater acceptance in mainstream Judaism, many Black Jews feel that converting would betray their independently authentic Jewish heritage. They also question why Halakha, the codified religious law followed by many observant Jews, should have the final say in deciding who is Jewish and who is not. “Halakhic Law offers a precise definition of who is a Jew,” Rabbi Shlomo Levy agrees on the website of the International Israelite Board of Rabbis. But Halakha, he argues, appeals to the “fewer than ten percent of the 5.3 million white Jews in America” that observe the strictures of Jewish law. There is no reason, he insists, that it should remain the only arbiter of Jewishness. For Orthodox and Conservative Jews, joining the Jewish faith follows a rigorous process, culminating in circumcision for men and immersion in a ritual bath. But “this standard cannot be applied to Black Jews unequivocally,” Rabbi Levi writes. “Nor could I verify baths or pricked penises if I wanted to.”
Rabbi Levy, who is a tenured professor of history at Northampton Community College, gives credence to his group’s claims of a blood connection to Judaism. He points to Hebraic practices among African peoples, which originate in “an early but unclear source.” But for Rabbi Levy, the very blood criterion that links Jewishness to ancestry is itself suspect. “Whatever the historical truth was [regarding the Black Jews],” he explains on the website for his synagogue, Beth Elohim, “the present reality is that G-d is spirit and those who worship Him must ‘worship Him in spirit’ instead of pigmentation.” In other words, for Levy, mainstream Judaism’s requirement for either documented Jewish descent, or ritual conversion, is a needless barrier between Black Jews and their coreligionists.
One can wonder what the anticipated acceptance of a Black Jewish rabbi to the New York Board might signify for American Judaism. It may indicate a ripple in its very fabric — that the tent of Judaism is being re-pitched, to include those whose faith and self-identification mark them as Jews, instead of direct Jewish descent or a standard conversion rite. Only time will tell.
Although her upbringing was mostly secular, Tova says that she always found Judaism appealing. “I was the religious one,” she told me with a laugh. “I was the one who wanted to go to the classes, even when no one else cared.”
When she was growing up, Tova remembers that it was hard for her family to feel normal in many Jewish communities. After her parents arrived in America, they were unpleasantly surprised to learn that, in the racial landscape of the 1970s, much of the country considered their marriage a taboo. “When [my parents] married in ’71, mixed marriage had just become legal. [Many] people were still not happy with it,” she recalled. That and the fact that they would travel frequently — her father served as a Marine in bases across the country — ultimately convinced her parents to adopt a largely secular lifestyle. “When we traveled, we traveled as a secular family,” Tova said. “The goal was to be all-American, not necessarily to be accepted by the Jewish community.” As she explains, “it wasn’t worth trying to join a shul and being treated the way [my parents] were going to be treated as a mixed couple.”
While Tova differentiates herself from the Black Jews, she agrees that many people have the unfortunate assumption that to be non-white is to be not-Jewish. “The Jews from India are really Jewish. And the Jews from Ethiopia. People are surprised to find that people in Nigeria have some Kohen blood,” she said, referring to the tribe of hereditary Jewish priests. “It’s no surprise to people of color! We come from the desert.”
Tova also feels that mainstream Jews should do a better job of welcoming black worshipers and potential converts. In her experience, the labyrinthine conversion process is sometimes used to keep black converts away. As Tova put it: “If they are serious, and genuine, and you’re not putting them through some kind of antics, why shouldn’t they be welcome, just like Ivanka Trump?”
Independence and Integration
Despite their skepticism, the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies opened some social services to the Black Jews in the 1960s. But full acceptance of the group as a Jewish denomination has always been skirted, if not outright denied. As Rabbi Baruch Yehudah, who heads the Brooklyn congregation Bnai Adath Kol Beth Yisrael, explained to me, however, others’ attitudes have had no bearing on his community’s ability to grow and thrive. “Just because a certain community doesn’t accept us — it doesn’t mean anything,” he said. “They will keep doing what they need to do. We’re going to keep doing what we need to do.” He continued, “Where we can work together, it’s a beautiful thing, barukh Hashem.”
Barukh Hashem is a Hebrew expression meaning “thank God.” And indeed, Rabbi Yehudah is grateful for the success the Black Jewish community has experienced, even without mainstream Jewish support. In addition to seven active synagogues in the United States, the group has many international affiliations. “Our community is always growing,” Rabbi Yehudah said, with evident pride. “We have not only communities in United States — we have communities in Nigeria and Uganda. We are officially affiliated with the Lembas of South Africa. The Nigerian and Ugandan communities [have] their leadership [as] a part of our board. We came back from Nigeria last year. Our plan is to be in Ethiopia this year.” The group is looking forward to their one hundredth anniversary, and a celebration that, as Rabbi Yehudah says, “will be magnificent.”
For decades, the Black Jews’ flagship synagogue was in Harlem, in the elegant Dwight House by Marcus Garvey Park. Although the group sold the house in 2007, there are still many Black Jews left in Manhattan. “There is still a population in Harlem,” Rabbi Yehudah said. Although there are no active Black Jewish synagogues in Manhattan, Rabbi Yehudah explained that many Black Jews pray at mainstream Jewish synagogues “for proximity’s sake,” especially on the Sabbath. “Some don’t travel on Shabbat, which makes it inconvenient to travel to the outer boroughs,” he said. “Which shows — there’s never been a problem with our community interfacing with other communities.”
Rabbi Yehudah confirmed that talks were underway between the Black Jewish community and the New York Board of Rabbis about appointing a member of the International Israelite Board. “We had a meeting with Rabbi Potasnik [and] Rabbi Gideon Shloush with that very conversation in mind — where do we go forward in Judaism,” he said. But the prospect of integration with the greater Jewish community raises concerns of its own for Black Jews. After nearly a century of independent Jewish practice, the Black Jews have their own traditions, their own observances, and most recently their own prayerbook. “When Rabbi Matthew started [the group] in 1919, and the Ethiopian Hebrew College in 1925, it was his desire to work with other people,” Rabbi Yehudah told me. “Everyone wanted us to join with them. They would say, ‘Let us come teach you, join you,’ and the rabbi was absolutely against that. This had nothing to do with color or race; our history as a people is not going to be wiped out. You can’t expect us to just give up our identity.”
Perhaps out of wariness for proselytizing European Jews, for many years following Rabbi Mathew’s death, the Black Jews were content to keep to themselves. As Rabbi Yehudah explained, “Our community has been disenfranchised so much, we’re weary of even dealing with anyone. There’s no hate, just — we’re good.” But Rabbi Funnye, who was appointed Chief Rabbi in 2015, has made integration with other Jewish communities a priority. Rabbi Funnye himself sits on the Chicago Board of Rabbis (which lists his congregation as “Traditional”) and on the Jewish Council of Urban Affairs. He is also part of the Rabbinic Circle of the interdenominational publication Bechol Lashon, along with Rabbi Gershom Sizomu, another member of the International Israelite Board.
However, as with previous efforts at integration, the Black Jews’ desire for collaboration comes second to their commitment to preserve their unique identity. The tension between acceptance and assimilation has always been a feature of Judaism in America; it is a consistent theme in the Black Jews’ relationship with mainstream Judaism. In the 1960s, there was an effort at outreach to the Black Jews, under the Zionist program HaTzaad HaRishon. “I was not there,” Rabbi Yehudah told me, “But I have a first-hand account from people who were in the organization. At the stage when they said we need to convert, and we said we are not willing to do that, all bets were off.” With the approach of the new year, change for the Black Jews may be in the air. But Black Jews’ integration with mainstream Judaism will likely hinge on whether white Jews can accept them on their own terms.
Although she doesn’t affiliate with the Black Jewish community, Tova sympathizes with their experience of marginalization. “Because I have dark skin, I have always had to be sensitive to the plight of people of color,” she explained. Ultimately, she says, Judaism is best off without racial labels: “Jews of color just want to be called Jews. Just like in the torah.”
To Be a Black Jew
This series was previously published in WAX Digital Magazine, 2017–2018
A quarter after eleven on Saturday morning, trumpets sounded in the Brooklyn sanctuary of Bnai Adath Kol Beth Yisrael. Following a morning kiddush of tuna, crackers, rugalach, fresh fruit, and hard-boiled eggs, the faithful were being called back to prayer with blasts of tekiah, teruah and tekiah.
Rabbi Baruch Yehudah, spiritual head of the congregation since 1999, told me that the practice follows the passage in Numbers 10. “Numbers 10 says that you should make for yourself trumpets of silver,” he explained. “Orthodox communities don’t use the trumpets, because they say it was something only for the priests.”
In most respects, the sanctuary in Bnai Adath resembles a traditional Jewish shul. A raised platform at the front of the room holds the Torah ark, with two chairs facing the congregation for the rabbi and Torah reader. The ark, or aron, has a white marble facade, and is topped with two standing lions, which support tablets inscribed with the ten commandments.
Unlike many Jewish communities, however, the Black Jews believe that Talmud — the fifth century compilation of Jewish law and custom — comes second to the authority of the Torah itself. “If there has been an edict or a ruling that we feel is not exactly in line with torah she’bichtav, we’ll follow what the torah she’bichtav says. That has been our take,” Rabbi Yehudah explained.
The Torah reading in Bnai Adath is an elaborate affair, punctuated with sermons and spanning several hours. The service began to the beating of drums. As the tempo increased, the rabbi broke out into song, reciting a Hebrew hymn composed by one of the community’s deceased leaders in honor of the Sabbath: “Zeh et Hashabbat, samay’ach ani; Zeh et Hashabbat samay’ach ani; Zeh et Hashabbat samay’ach ani; Ani ohayve Ha-yom shel Hashem.”
Gradually, the room filled, as congregants filed in from doors at the front and rear of the sanctuary in twos and threes. At its fullest, the congregation held some fifty men, women, and children, including several young fathers and teenage boys. The men wore either mesh kippot or small knit yalmukas, while the women covered their hair with brightly colored headscarves. Many of the men wore grey tunics, lined with delicate purple and blue pinstripes; strings of tzizit (ritual fringes) poked out from under their shirts. Some of the men wore tallitot (prayer shawls), but many did not. Rabbi Yehudah stood out in his rabbinic garb: a black caftan, purple sash, and tall black hat.
A Unique Tradition of Jewish Practice
The Black Jewish community, to which Rabbi Yehudah’s congregation belongs, has a nearly century long approach to the Jewish tradition. Rabbi Wentworth Arthur Matthew, who founded the movement as a reclaiming of African-American roots, initially hoped for cooperation between Black Jews and their mainstream coreligionists. During his lifetime, his attempts to gain recognition as an independent Jewish denomination didn’t accomplish much. And after his death, most meaningful conversation between Black Jews and the Jewish majority came to a halt.
In that isolation, a unique tradition of Black Jewish practice blossomed. The Black Jews have their own take on Jewish law and many of their own customs, or minhagim. For example, while the group parallels Orthodox Judaism in many ways, eating strictly kosher food and taking guidance from traditional texts like the Talmud, Maimonides, and the Shuchan Aruch, they do drive on Saturday, at least to synagogue. “Our tradition has been that when we travel on Shabbat, [it’s] only to go to a shul,” Rabbi Yehudah explained. “We don’t take leisurely drives, or anything.”
After the first Shabbat hymn, Rabbi Yehudah called out, “Let us say the Shema!” The group recites the Shema frequently throughout the service, and has composed a prayer around the passage’s opening verse. When chanting the prayer, congregants sometimes substitute the name of God for a Hebrew alternative — as is common Jewish practice. Other times, however, they pronounce the name as it is spelled, like the practice of the Samaritans and some Karaites. As they chanted, the men clapped and swayed, and the women sang, danced, and beat on tambourines.
As the Shema hymn came to a close, Rabbi Yehudah turned to the ark, arms outstretched, and began to pray. He spoke in English, praying for the community’s safety, health, and for suffering throughout the world. “We pray for those who are suffering for some reason or another. We pray for those who have no food, have no shelter. We pray, oh Lord our God, that you will be gracious unto them.” His voice cracked as he returned to the protection of his own community: “We pray that you will watch over us in the subways, that you will watch over us when we are in the streets. For we have no support except thee.”
The siddur printed by Bnai Adath includes much of the standard Jewish liturgy, supplemented by the congregation’s own prayers and songs. But Rabbi Yehudah told me that he feels most free when praying spontaneously, as he did several times during the service. “I like the siddur. I love the prayers that are in it. They’re so eloquent, and I like to be eloquent when I speak to God, because he is majesty,” he told me reverentially, as we sat chatting after the service. “But I don’t need it.”
Rabbi Yehudah’s intimate style of prayer has yielded mixed reactions from mainstream Jews. He told me that when he participated in an inter-denominational service run by Bekhol Lashon, a progressive Jewish thinktank, “some [people] were appalled. And other people were like, ‘We can do that?’”
Indeed, at a time when many Jewish communities across the country are striving to create services that are more spontaneous and participatory, Rabbi Yehudah’s congregation stands out for its dynamism. But if Rabbi Yehudah’s prayer is spontaneous, his religious practice strives for the full rigidity of the Halakha. He doesn’t see driving to synagogue as compromising Shabbat, so much as a rabbinic intervention “to create this space in order for life to work in a sort of normal fashion.” He compares the practice to Orthodox Judaism’s use of eruv, a Halachic loophole that allows Jews to carry on the Shabbat if they first encompass the neighborhood with a thin wire.
“It’s just like in the Orthodox community, where they set up eruv,” he said. “Some of the Halachic laws of Shabbat, [like] carrying, pushing, are relaxed in this specialized space.” As Rabbi Yehudah explains, Rabbi Matthew felt it similarly important to find ways to adapt Judaism’s ancient laws to the necessities of modern life. “We don’t live directly around the shul,” he explained. “[Rabbi Matthew] had the very same right to establish the parameters and minhagim of the community.”
Perhaps the most striking difference between Black Judaism’s practice and that of Orthodox Jews is in their approach to the Bible’s laws of ritual purity. For the most part, American Orthodoxy considers these laws moot in an age without animal sacrifices or a Jewish temple. For the Black Jews, however, the torah she’bichtav, or Biblical text, must be upheld in any way possible. “Even though we don’t have the red heifer, in our community, Rabbi Matthew taught we should do as much of the law as we can,” said Rabbi Yehudah, referring to the Bible’s ritual of purification after contact with the dead. The biblical purification process involves sprinkling the impure person with water, mixed with the sacrificial ash of a red cow. Although a sacrifice is unavailable, the Black Jews still observe this process to the best of their ability. “We won’t go to shul, will bathe on the third and seventh day, although we don’t have the water and sprinkling to cleanse us,” Rabbi Yehudah explained. “Although we don’t have the red heifer, it is [still] possible to separate from holy things.”
Rabbi Yehudah acknowledges that, among Jewish denominations, the Black Jewish approach to scriptural interpretation is somewhat off the beaten path. But he doesn’t see this as a problem. On the contrary, he believes that a plethora of approaches to Jewish practice is exactly what the Jewish tradition has always been about. “When I hear of Jewish communities arguing, not in direct violation of the Torah, I find it very puzzling. The Torah says when you have a difference of opinion, you take it to the judges [of your community], and that’s the torah you follow,” he said. Rabbi Yehudah feels the differences between the Black Jews and other denominations fit within that accommodating framework. “Most European Jews don’t ignore it,” he said referencing the biblical passage on purification. “They have a ruling that, because they don’t have the parah aduma [red heifer], they don’t keep it. That’s fine. That’s your community.”
Looking Across Community Lines
The Black Jews’ new Chief Rabbi, Capers Funnye, wants to foster a closer relationship between Black Jews and the Jewish mainstream. By the end of the year, he hopes to have a Black Jewish leader join the interdenominational New York Board of Rabbis. Rabbi Yehudah, however, seems uncertain of the outcome.
“We had a meeting with Rabbi Potasnik [and] Rabbi Gideon Shloush, with that very conversation in mind,” Rabbi Yehudah acknowledged, referring to the leadership of the New York Board. “There is conversation. How far it’s going is another story.”
While the Black Jews seek greater acceptance from the mainstream, they are keen to ensure that integrating with the broader Jewish community won’t compromise their independent tradition. “Our history as a people is not going to be wiped out,” Rabbi Yehudah told me. “You can’t expect us to just give up our identity.” Maintaining their autonomy from white Jewry has been a consistent theme in Black Jewish history, even as they sought acknowledgement from the Jewish mainstream. Already in 1985, the deceased kohain of Bnai Adath, Kohain HaLevi, told the New York Times that Black Jews “are a separate culture” and have “a heritage which we do not want to compromise.” Then, as now, the Black Jews emphasized that they didn’t judge their authenticity by “European principles which have been integrated into the faith.”
Although the Black Jews are largely isolated from the larger Jewish world, Rabbi Baruch Yehudah has had congregants marry Jews from mainstream denominations before. He recounted the circumstances of one man’s marriage across community lines. “They insisted that he convert, and he did,” he recalled. “That’s what he wanted to do — no one had an issue.” Although many Black Jews shun conversion as a means of gaining acceptance among mainstream Jews, Rabbi Yehudah accepted his congregant’s decision with a smile. “He found love,” he said simply. “Barukh hashem.”
When the young couple asked Rabbi Yehudah to circumcise their son, however, things got a little dicey. According to Rabbi Yehudah, while planning the ceremony, the couple’s extended family found a way to circumvent the choice of Rabbi Yehudah as circumciser and use a mohel (ritual circumciser) of their own. “They invited [the father] to do it in the community center instead of the house, only so they could argue with him [over] who would do the brit mila,” Rabbi Yehudah related, using the Hebrew term for circumcision.
Rabbi Yehudah, who has been performing ritual circumcision for twenty-four years, was able to dismiss the insult to his personal integrity. More important to him was the delay caused to the time-sensitive circumcision. “I made everyone be quiet,” he told me. “I told the father [to] be quiet, and I told the gentleman to call the secret mohel he had waiting.” “The important thing,” he reflected, “was that this child be circumcised on the eighth day.”
As Rabbi Yehudah can attest, Black Jews are often greeted with mixed feelings by the Jewish mainstream. Although mainstream Jews generally greet Black Jews with good will, they usually stop short of fully accepting their legitimacy. Personally, Rabbi Yehudah feels that this suspicion comes from a sectarian attitude, which needlessly pits Jewish denominations against each other. “I don’t want to say racism. For me that [suspicion] is more… almost cultism,” he said. “I think they also would have a problem with people from other communities,” he added.
From a Jewish perspective, Rabbi Yehudah insisted that denominational loyalty doesn’t justify the rejection of his congregant’s choice of mohel. “When they cause that commotion,” he said, “they violate not only the Torah, but the Talmud as well.” Citing the Babylonian Talmud, a traditional source of Jewish law, he explained that “the father has the exclusive right to choose who will conduct the brit mila. They had no right, under any law, to do what they did.”
To transmit their heritage to the next generation, the Black Jews largely rely on homeschooling, in addition to weekly classes, usually given at shul. “There’s Shabbos school. Some of the shuls have Sunday school,” Rabbi Yehudah told me. There have also been broader efforts at organizing an official Black Jewish educational center. “One of our congregations had their own school, the Israelite Institute,” Rabbi Yehudah said. “But it became more and more difficult for parents to pay the tuition and makes ends meet. Kohain Levi ben Yisrael, our senior kohain [priest] of 15 years, unfortunately passed, alav hashalom [peace be unto him].”
Today, the group lacks a centralized school. “That is our focus,” Rabbi Yehudah told me, “to get a school going again, so that we can have our children schooled within the confines of our community.”
As I looked around during Torah reading services, I could see the success of that transmission. Three young men shared my pew, dressed in decorative tunics with white mesh kippot. As Rabbi Yehudah spoke about the binding of Isaac, they wrote assiduously in notebooks (the Black Jews do not consider writing a violation of the Sabbath), recording the sermon’s religious teachings. In the row behind, young fathers sat with toddlers, whom they occasionally hushed. Generations of Black Judaism had come to hear the Torah’s teachings.
“I’m Still a Black Man in America”
The Black Jews who follow Rabbi Matthew’s tradition refer to themselves by several names — Black Jews, Ethiopian Hebrews, Black Israelites. As Rabbi Yehudah explained to me, however, these names all refer to the same thing. “Nomenclature depends on time. The people of God, by the commandment of the Creator, are called Israelites. Our race is Hebrew. If you read in the bible, or Tanach, the terms ‘Israelite’ and ‘Hebrew’ were used at the same time.” Ultimately, though, Rabbi Yehudah says that whether you call his congregation Black Jews, Hebrews, or Israelites doesn’t matter. “I don’t care what you call me,” he concluded with a laugh. “It’s all me!”
For Black Jews, their own true destiny lies where they see the fate of the entire Jewish nation: in the Promised Land. “Every Hebrew’s desire is to live in the land of Israel,” Rabbi Yehudah told me. “Those who live their lives as if prophecy is fact…[and] to my community, the word of Elohim is fact, incontrovertible fact — the ultimate goal is to return to the land of our forefathers, and bring a peace that the world has never known.”
That longing for redemption — so paradigmatically Jewish — is reflected in a hymn printed in the back of Bnai Adath’s siddur, “Ma-tie” (“When?”). More or less, it translates to: “When will we go to our home? When will we return to our homeland? If we are proper, soon.”
Ma-tie, ma-tie, ma-tai, nelech el bay’tanu?
Ma-tie, ma-tie, ma-tie, emore lanu nah.
Ma-tie, ma-tie, ma-tie, nashuve l’moledet?
Ma-tie, ma-tie, ma-tie, im anachnu nachone, bikarove.
In the meantime, however, Rabbi Yehudah says that his racial identity in America means that he “can’t separate his blackness from his Jewishness.” As he put it: “I am still a black man in America.” That racial reality undergirds his appreciation for Dr. Martin Luther King. “The King movement had a profound effect on our community,” Rabbi Yehudah said. “Even if it’s just that we could worship without the police knocking on the door and saying that we can’t. So of course, the King movement was important to us. Is it important to us as far as our religious beliefs? No. Is it important to us in terms of our civic rights? Absolutely.”
As I took my leave of Bnai Adath, Rabbi Yehudah finally allowed me to shake his hand. He had formerly refused, but explained that now that his service was done, he was free to touch people. “It’s a practice that our kohain instituted,” he told me, not to touch people before the service was through. It was another example of the Black Jewish customs surrounding ritual purity, and of the richness with which this community serves the god of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.