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Losses and Links for Black Jews

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.



17 Comments

  1. Very odd. I do not believe any mainstream groups accept the Black Hebrews to be Jews…not ethnically, religiously, or culturally. Even the Israeli government, which has permitted many of them to move to Israel, does not consider them Jews.

    While they certainly have added to the cultural milieu of Israeli society (particularly in music), unlike the Ethiopian Jews who have a strong Jewish background and undeniable Jewish history, the Black Hebrews do not share such qualities. In fact, on of their fundamental beliefs (at least for some Black Hebrew groups) is that those commonly accepted as Jews have usurped that title and in fact are not Jews at all. If one can merely dub oneself “Jewish” and gain the acceptance of the JOI, then I dare say Jews for Jesus, and JewBuhs (Jewish Budhists), etc. have an equally strong claim to gain acceptance.

    I hope that is not the road you are going down.

    Comment by marc — July 12, 2007 @ 10:06 am

  2. Marc, I know the so-called Black Hebrew group you are talking about. They are a tiny cult that you can sometimes see in Manhattan reading text on the street in interesting outfits. That’s not who this blog is about. The congregants of Commandment Keepers, Congregation Temple Beth’El in Philadelphia, and a number of other synagogues through North America are practicing Judaism as you know it. And there is a growing recognition among “mainstream” Jews to forge ties. As much as I’d like to claim JOI on the cutting edge, we are far from the only Jewish organization building bridges. Take for example Rabbi Capers C. Funnye Jr., who serves on the Chicago Board of Rabbis. Follow that link for a paragraph explaining the differentiation:

    The congregation is not connected to the American Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem, or Black Hebrews, an African-American group that claims Jewish ties. That group considers leader Ben Ami Ben Israel to be the Messiah, uses both the Old and New Testaments in worship and allows men to have multiple wives. Funnye’s group, by contrast, follows the Jewish scriptures and is widely recognized within Judaism - or as widely recognized as any group is in a disparate religion…

    Comment by Paul Golin — July 12, 2007 @ 12:42 pm

  3. Hi Paul,

    I read the article and see that there significant are differences between the two movements. It seems, though, that this article is about a group that also started in the early 1900s, with no lineal history of Judaism.

    If they are practicing Judaism today, then I welcome them to undergo full conversion (which should not entail much). If they are unwilling, though, then I am glad to have them as religious-minded Americans whose beliefs are based upon Jewish influences, but they wouldn’t be Jews. Perhaps they would qualify as Bene-Noach, which is also a growing movement in the U.S. and al Jews should welcome non-Jews who which to become Bene-Noach, thereby affirming the Gentile connection to God as layed out in the Torah. They need not convert to connect to God.

    It seems this group is well-intentioned, but they do not have the Jewish lineage or even oral history that the Ethiopeans have or even smaller groups such as the Bene Menashe of India (who do undergo ritual conversion even though fully observant already). Either way, it was an interesting article.

    Comment by marc — July 12, 2007 @ 2:16 pm

  4. Marc, I totally understand your point of view and in fact you just described the attitude of much of the mainstream community toward these folks. I know we will simply agree to disagree on this point, but I want to share my thinking in case anyone else is reading this string. Here’s why I accept them as Jews:

    As you pointed out from the article, some of these groups started in the early 1900s. Some are now in their third or fourth generation of practicing Judaism, and practicing it more strickly than 80% of “official” Jews in this country. I simply will not nulify that person’s Judaism because his or her grandmother did not seek out a WHITE rabbi in the pre-Civil Rights era and get “officially” converted but rather took on the covenant on their own initiative.

    More importantly, many Orthodox Jews (perhaps including yourself) would not accept their conversion unless it was done by a very specific sub-set of rabbis (and perhaps not THAT Orthodox rabbi but only THAT OTHER Orthodox rabbi). So even if they did follow your instructions to be accepted as a Jew by you…they’d have to navigate through which rabbi would be acceptable to you. Those kind of political considerations — and you will never convince me that it is anything BUT politics and power-plays between denominations — make me highly skeptical of the “power” rabbis hold on this issue when rabbis are in theory no holier than anyone else. (That’s a Paul Golin opinion, not a JOI opinion, and as a disclaimer: I know many rabbis that I do indeed consider holy people, but it’s not because of the rabbinic degree on their wall. I know lay people I would consider holy too.)

    Finally, I would ask you: how far back can you trace your OWN family? I can go back to around 1880. I think most Jews can only go back that far, maybe a little bit further. Are you SO sure your lineage goes all the way back to Sinai?! Or do you have to take it as a leap of faith like all the rest of us that “I was at Sinai” and therefore do not need an Orthodox conversion of your own, just because nobody remembers whether your great-great-great-grandmother was a Jew or not?

    If you attended one of the services at these synagogues and saw them doing everything you’d expect at a Jewish synagogue, you might think to yourself, “these poor people are diluding themselves into thinking they’re Jews.” I would suggest that the opposite is true, that these people who walk, talk, breath, and live Judaism are Jews, and the continued denial of them because they or their parents or grandparents weren’t “officially” converted would be diluding ourselves. I think that for many “official” Jews, their objection is not based 100% on halachic adhearance alone, because many of those who object don’t live 100% halachic lives anyway — so the question is, what else is going on? (I’m not talking about you necessarily, Marc, on this last point because I think you do try to live a halachic life and therefore I can accept your objection as based solely on halacha…though like I wrote above, I question whatever halachic rulings would prevent me from accepting a family that has practiced Judaism for three generations as Jews. ;)

    Comment by Paul Golin — July 13, 2007 @ 9:31 am

  5. Paul, times have changed and while perhaps racism would have been a factor in convertint 3 generations ago, such is not the case today. I know several African-American converts and children of converts…all of whom had orthodox, halachic conversions.

    Further, this group about whom you write is not an example of people who do not know their lineage and are going upon an oral tradition that they were Jews. To the contrary, they CAN trace back their lineage to a fourth generation of non-Jews on both sides for sure and they are also sure that there have been no halachic conversions since then (neither maternally nor paternally). Given the CERTAINTY of their non-Jewish lineage, we should require conversion…especially when we require it in many doubtful situations.

    I can compare this situation to the Bene-Menashe of India who have an oral history of being one of the lost tribes and have been practicing Orthodox Judaism for 2 generations now. EVEN in the face of that, because we are CERTAIN that their tribe had been practicing Christianity for at least (and perhaps only) a few generations before that (it is said they were converted by missionaries in the late 1800s), the rabbis require conversion back today. The Bene Menashe, because of their oral history (how strong that history is, is a matter of debate, I admit), have a stronger claim than this group, yet still must undergo conversion.

    As I said, if they are willing to join us fully, then I and many Orthodox rabbis in America will welcome them with open arms. the choice is theirs.

    Your point about which Orthodox rabbi would be acceptable is well taken, but so long as it is not a charlatan who would require minimal adherence to halacha in order to dub them Jews, then the vast majority of the Orthodox world would accept them fully.

    Comment by marc — July 17, 2007 @ 12:32 pm

  6. Just found this relevant bit…
    From the Shulchan Arukh (Yoreh Deah 268:11). If parents convert to Judaism and they have children and raise those children as Jews and their conversion later becomes suspect, the parents may be considered as not Jewish but the status of the children should not be questioned.

    Perhaps you can say that in the above case the parents’ conversions did not “become suspect” but instead were suspect at the time and therefore this does not apply. But I found this teaching to be a powerful and inclusive message.

    Comment by Paul Golin — September 14, 2007 @ 12:00 am

  7. My family attended that synagogue for years mygrand children children are 4th generations. what are we, non- jews???

    Comment by zenimah — December 3, 2007 @ 10:54 pm

  8. Shalom.

    A question for Paul:

    Why do the commandment keepers not perform an orthodox conversion DESPITE all the politics with which rabbi did what, etc.?

    I know politics can keep people away, but for other reasons: social, financial, etc is it not advisable to go under an established umbrella of Judaism?

    Just curious.

    Thanks.

    Comment by miriam — January 27, 2008 @ 5:34 am

  9. Hi Miriam,

    In the classic Jewish tradition, I’ll answer your question with another question: Why should they?

    Their identity is being negated. If someone tries to negate your identity, you can take just a few paths: ignore them and do your own thing, confident in your own identity, or try to change to meet their standards.

    This is happening all over the Jewish community. The Chief Rabbi of Israel is not recognizing a lot of conversions, even those done by some Orthodox rabbis! Similarly, patrilineal Jews (with a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother) are recognized as Jewish by the Reform and Reconstructionist movements but not by Conservative and Orthodox, and are sometimes told that they are “not really Jewish.”

    If you’re a patrilineal Jew and it’s important to you to be a part of an Orthodox community and read from the Torah during Orthodox prayer services, you’ll need to meet their standards and undergo an Orthodox conversion. If you’re perfectly happy within the Reform movement, why bother? You can just as easily say, “to hell with that, I KNOW I’m Jewish, I’m accepted by my community as Jewish, and I don’t need your stamp of approval.”

    While I don’t know them personally, my guess is that the Promise Keepers may feel a bit of that. Also, there may be some underlying issues of race that would be hard to articulate, but may certainly be felt, especially considering the people negating their identity would almost all be Ashkenazi (of Eastern-European descent). According to many in the Orthodox community, as long as individuals undergo Orthodox conversions they are fully accepted, regardless of skin color. But if you speak to some actual Jews-of-color who grew up and/or live in the Orthodox community, many will tell you that — like every other community on the planet — theirs is not immune from racism either. So I can’t rule that out as a factor.

    I’m sorry that I haven’t yet had this conversation with some actual folks from the community in question, but these are my best guesses. Thanks,
    Paul

    Comment by Paul Golin — January 29, 2008 @ 4:56 pm

  10. ps - as far as your question about the advantages of being under an “established umbrella of Judaism,” these days there are so many grass-roots communities and anti-denominational study groups that, in some ways, the established umbrella is a bit under seige even from within the organized community!

    Comment by Paul Golin — January 29, 2008 @ 4:58 pm

  11. I am interested in Rabbi Funnye speaking for us at our Institute for Adult Jewish studies. Please send me his email address or any othere contact information. Thank you.

    Comment by Rita Goldman — March 11, 2008 @ 7:05 am

  12. Hi,
    I had the honor to serve the State of Israel as the head of the Consulate / immigration affairs for Ukraine and Moldova (then the largest source of Alia, in the nineties). As one who was entitled to judge who’s a Jew and who is not, (At least as far as the Israeli law is concerned) I feel I sure have a say in this matter.
    Any Orthodox conversion would make a person (and successors) eligible for Jewishness, Alia etc. Any other conversion would be only acceptable by the group/ congregation who authorized it, but not necessarily by all others. Specifically, it would mean nothing for the orthodox Jewry, or for the state of Israel. (The things may be changing …)
    Any conversion of 80 years ago and before, would be very questionable if it came to me.
    Personally I may declare that I would welcome any black-skinned bride or groom in my own family. I will definitely ask about their formal jewishness, yes, just because it is not trivial.But thereafter the color will be meaningless for me.
    I define myself as an Israeli modern orthodox, and believe I may represent this group, and I believe that all this group shares my views. In my congregation (Beth Joseph, in Jerusalem), there are seen both black skinned Jews who are clearly of west African origin, not Ethiopians) and Chinese/Japanese Jews, first or second generation after conversion, all happily married to Israeli, white partners of European origin, and they are well accepted, no questions ever been asked
    Ken Yirbu

    Comment by Maksim Gur — November 30, 2008 @ 4:41 am

  13. DAVID BEN GURION ONCE SAID A JEWS IS ANYONE WHO SAYS HE IS..I WOULD ADD AND ATTEMPTS TO FOLLOW TORAH…THE REST IS POLITICS.

    Comment by R. DAVID SAXANOFF — April 9, 2009 @ 5:59 pm

  14. Shalom. We are like children at play needing attention. We are all are Father’s favorite, because there is only one G-d. A Jew has declared publicly that there is only one God and his judgments are right. He/she has vowed to live after his covenant and walk in his ways. Hashem made the African first. Why would you be shocked that they consider themselves his people also and refuse to serve any other god but him. The Israelites were not a homogeneous group of people. They were believers in the true and living God and that encompassed a lot of different nationalities. People who enjoy others living in ignorance and refuse to accept people who want to live righteously are selfish and insecure. We recite every week we can’t wait until all the world becomes one and his name become one and we still engage in these separatist conversations as his people. We are suppose to be a light unto the nations. Repair the world by leading people in the righteousness of Hashem.

    Comment by Fran Ransom — September 5, 2009 @ 5:53 pm

  15. The Moshiach is a human being who will have to bring the Jewish Nation
    all over the world together in a time called the last redemption.
    The Moshiach’s ability to do that is not by human power or human
    knowledge but by the supernatural power of the Holy One of Israel.
    The Moshiach brings perfect peace to world by not telling the world to
    put down their arms.
    The Moshiach is timeless, meaning he had existed before time.
    The Moshiach converses directly with the owner of the universe.
    The Moshiach brings real meaning to all meaninglessness of the world.
    The Moshiach knows death and will stop death throughout the world.
    The Moshiach loves humanity.
    Humanity was made for the Moshiach.
    The Moshiach knows where the first human was dug from.
    The Moshiach is the Holy One of Israel’s last messenger to mankind.
    The Moshiach is a direct descendant from King David of Biblical times.
    The Moshiach ushers the whole world into the state of utopia.
    The Moshiach only opens his mouth and the whole world go blind on sin.
    The Moshiach brings perfect justice on planet earth.
    The Moshiach does not judge by what he sees with his eyes or hears
    with his ears.
    The Moshiach is neutral
    The Moshiach comes from the exact middle of the earth. The cradle of
    humanity
    The Moshiach suffers very much both physically and emotionally.
    Like a movie, The Moshiach’s script is Isaiah 49 which he is going to
    read to all humanity when he is outdoored.
    The Moshiach does not die
    The Moshiach is alive
    The Moshiach was born on 11th October 1975
    The Moshiach is Isaiah 11
    The Moshiach is Isaiah 42
    The Moshiach is mandated to read the whole chapter of Isaiah 61
    The Moshiach has a Law which all gentile nations will put their hope
    in
    The Moshiach brings both Jews and Gentiles together
    The Moshiach suffers to be heard.
    The Moshiach knows and explain satisfactorily to every man in simple
    language the REAL MEANING OF LIFE
    The Moshiach is going to steal the world by surprise
    The Moshiach does not preach repentance
    The Moshiach even says the time to repent is over
    The Moshiach when he gets angry…… psalm 2
    The Moshiach is just like David, using very primitive tools to fight the enemy
    The Moshiach is the suffering servant(Isaiah 53), one like the son of man Daniel 7, the servant of the Lord (Isaiah 42), the seed of the woman, The root of Jesse (Isaiah 11)… in that day the root of Jesse shall stand as an ensign for the people and the nations shall rally to him.
    The Moshiach brings the little rock (TORAH) that came to hit the statue King Nebucadnezar saw in Daniel 2.
    The Moshiach is mandated to change the existing human code.
    The Moshiach does not make noise in the street, least he is branded as a Lunatic. Isaiah 42
    The Moshiach is the prophet like Moses. Deut 18:18
    The Moshiach is always in pain and distress. Always crying for humanity
    The Moshiach has the new name of Zion (Isaiah 62), and the perfect design of the New Jerusalem (New World) with all 12 gates carefully marked out.
    The Moshiach needs help badly. The evil one is really torturing him. The only thing the evil one can’t do to him is to kill him.
    HOW DOES HE KNOW HE IS THE MOSHIACH. Answer found in Isaiah 48:16

    WE WANT MOSHIACH, WE WANT MOSHIACH, WE WANT MOSHIACH
    I warn every Jew reading this that it would have been better if THE MOSHIACH had not come in your generation.
    If you are a Jew reading this, then this is the message from the Holy
    One of Israel.

    HE SAYS EVERY ORPHAN (BE THE FELLOW RICH, POOR, OLD OR YOUNG) ON
    PLANET EARTH, BE GIVEN AT LEAST ONE BANANA (FOOD) WHICH DOES NOT BELONG TO HIM TO EAT EVERY MONTH.

    IN EFFECT ADAM CAN AND MUST NOW EAT THE FORBIDDEN FRUIT. HE HAS NOW ACCEPTED THAT AN ORPHAN CAN NOW EAT FOOD THAT DOES NOT BELONG TO HIM AND MAKES IT A LAW.

    THIS INSTRUCTION WILL CHANGE THE WHOLE FIBER OF THE HUMAN RACE AND THE ENVIRONMENT

    THIS IS ALL THE WORLD NEEDS TO BE A PARADISE

    EVERY THING HAS GOT IT UNIQUE ID, AND SO NO TWO IN-TAKE OF BREATH IS THE SAME

    THE TORAH WILL MAKE THE KNOWLEDGE OF G-D BE ABUNDANT AS WATER COVERS THE SEA.

    Comment by kwamerica — September 15, 2009 @ 6:05 am

  16. What is it that they fear to keep a Lie goimg. any other jews have not the physical structures to go through slavery like the colored people who claim there true id…

    Comment by nebiyu — October 21, 2009 @ 4:56 am

  17. conversion is by halacha for all black or white all are accepted one must only keep the the oral and written torah as the shulchan aruch points out. a posek is the decider as was rabbi yosef karo .

    Comment by hershel — December 23, 2009 @ 9:14 pm

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