As reported in last week’s New York Jewish Week Newspaper, Commandment Keepers synagogue in East Harlem has closed its doors after serving generations of New York City’s black Jewish families for 88 years. The building has been sold, the leadership and congregants are feuding, and many remaining community members feel there is nowhere left for them to worship. The loss of this synagogue may has affected the black Jewish community significantly, but is not necessarily felt at all by the mainstream American Jewish community, even locally in New York.
Commandment Keepers was one of about ten congregations in New York with rabbis ordained by the Israelite Rabbinical Academy. The members of these congregations refer to themselves as “Black Jews,” “Black Hebrews” or “Black Israelites.” There are somewhere between 50,000 and 150,000 black Jews in America, according to Gary Tobin, a demographer who studies the black Jewish community (though not all identify with one of the above-mentioned groups). Some Black Hebrews adhere fairly closely to mainstream Jewish rituals and practice, and others follow their own interpretations of the Torah according to the teachings of their leaders.
When I visited Congregation Temple Beth’El in Philadelphia, I witnessed their strict observance of Jewish law. Visitors there were asked to dress modestly; they have their own mikvah, kosher butcher, and use a traditional Jewish liturgy during prayer. The biggest difference I found was that their singing—and the music to which they set the liturgy—was much more soulful than any I have heard elsewhere, as it draws on the African-American gospel tradition.
The definition of “legitimate” Jewish identity in the mainstream community always depends on whom you ask. The New York Board of Rabbis, whose vision statement is “to be the primary forum for rabbis within New York’s diverse rabbinical community,” repeatedly denied the application of Rabbi Matthew of Commandment Keepers (who passed away in 1973), a West Indian immigrant born to an Ethiopian Jewish father—officially because he was not ordained by one of their affiliated seminaries.
There is, however, growing collaboration taking place between some congregations in the black-Jewish community and “mainstream” Jewish organizations and synagogues. Members of Congregation Temple Beth’El’s Choir will be singing at the Jewish Outreach Institute’s Annual Conference in October 2007. As the American Jewish community becomes increasingly complex and diverse, let’s embrace our differences while we celebrate our common love of Judaism and the desire to contribute to its continuation.