Black Jews are often rejected as “inauthentic” by the Jewish establishment, the Jewish Daily Forward reports, but now these Hebrew Israelites — as black Jews have called themselves to distinguish from Jews of European descent — “readily count themselves among the Jewish people without qualification.” More are undergoing formal conversion and sending their children to yeshivas or Jewish day schools.
In his article, Len Lyons reports that within black synagogues, traditions seeped in “black religious expression” remain. The repeated calls of “hallelujah,” “emet” (truth), and “ken” (yes), not usually found in synagogues, intersperse the preaching. Also rare in synagogues, the “joyful music of the choir, and its full rhythm section of keyboard, guitar and drums to sanctify the day.”
The practices of the Hebrew Israelites started nearly a century ago when a West Indian immigrant, Wentworth A. Matthew, founded a Harlem congregation called the Commandment Keepers in 1920.
Matthew, revered as the founding rabbi of the movement, also created a precursor to the Israelite Rabbinical Academy, which trained rabbis to lead prayers and rituals fashioned after the Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews who were his neighbors in Harlem.
Over several decades, a dozen or so Matthew-inspired synagogues sprouted up in Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx and Harlem. Matthew taught that Hebrew Israelites had no need to conform to the conversion requirements of mainstream white denominations; nor did he himself seek smicha — formal rabbinic ordination via an established rabbi or rabbinic panel — to function as a rabbi. Matthew avowed that all this was unnecessary because the roots of black identity reached back to the Israelites of the Torah. Black Jews, even today, view themselves as having returned to their true identity, which was obliterated by the catastrophic Middle Passage into slavery, when millions of Africans were torn from their homeland and dispersed, effectively erasing their history, culture and family ties.
A study released in June on New York’s Jewish population found an increase in multiracial and nonwhite Jewish families. Twelve percent of Jewish households fall into this category, which includes interracial couples, adults with interracial children, Jewish couples with non-white adopted children or non-whites born Jewish or converted.
Some Hebrew Israelites, in the article and in the Forward’s video interview with several rabbis above, told of the challenges they face as black Jews.
Shlomi Mizrahi, an alumni of Brandeis Hebrew Day School on Long Island, who speaks fluent Hebrew and worked as a translator for Delta Air Lines’ Israel business, attended a Conservative synagogue in Atlanta for two years. When he asked for an aliyah, or call to the Torah, to celebrate his 30th birthday, he was refused, he recalled, because, without conversion papers, the rabbi would not accept that he was a Jew, even though his parents and grandparents were Jews and the yeshiva had enrolled him as a Jew. Instead, Mizrahi celebrated with an aliyah at the black synagogue in Mount Vernon, N.Y., Beth HaTefilah Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation, where his uncle was the rabbi. Mizrahi, now 35, was ordained by the Israelite Rabbinical Academy in 2000, at age 24.
At the Chicago synagogue, congregant Tamar Manasseh’s 15-year old daughter, Avriel, read from the Torah during the Sabbath service. Both Manasseh and her daughter are graduates of a Jewish day school on the city’s South Side. Yet Manasseh recently pulled her son out of this school because she felt he suffered discrimination, which she describes in her self-published book, “Chai-ME.”
In another article for the Jewish Daily Forward, Lyons describes the scene at services in three black synagogues across the country — Beth Shalom Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation in Brooklyn, Congregation Temple Bethel in Philadelphia and Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation in Chicago. While Temple Bethel has always belonged to its congregation since the early 1970s, white Jews originally filled the other synagogues before dispersing for the suburbs.
Vocal participation echoes off synagogue walls — “Hallelujah!” “Teach us, rabbi.” “That’s right!” — as prayers transition into music, complete with instruments and clapping. “As in African society,” Lyons writes, “music is for participation, not passive appreciation.”
The congregation’s clothes also mirror the energy of the synagogues, with women wearing “bright, African-style dresses, sometimes with large earrings and a turban-like headdress.”
The Hebrew Israelites have created tight-knit communities within the synagogues they call their own, Lyons writes, using Hebrew phrases and immersing themselves for the day in their congregations.
Because there are no black Jewish neighborhoods, people come from afar and cannot easily return to the synagogue during the week. They make the most out of being there and stay all day, starting at 9 or 10 a.m. After lunch, which can start at 2 or 3 p.m., there is a class or guest speaker, followed by mincha, or afternoon prayer, and then havdalah, the service concluding the Sabbath, after sundown.
[Editor’s Note: “Emet,” which meets “truth” in Hebrew, was originally misspelled as “meet,” which means “death.” The mistake has been corrected thanks to Aaron, whose comments are below.]