Black Jewish Leader Levi Ben Levy is Dead at 64
Levi Ben Levy, a black Jewish leader who served as the chief rabbi of the International Israelite Board of Rabbis, died on April 9 at the Mount Sinai Medical Center in Manhattan. The cause of death was leukemia. He was 64.
Levy, who “returned” to Judaism after attending a service at Rabbi Wentworth Matthew’s black synagogue in Harlem, headed up North America’s largest and oldest sect of African-American Jews.
After a move to New York from the South, Levy went looking for God, and he found Judaism, his son Rabbi Sholomo Levy said. Born Lawrence McKethan and reared as a Southern Baptist, Levy grew up believing that the people described in the Jewish Bible were white. The founder of black Judaism, the late Rabbi Matthew, convinced him otherwise. It was a revelation he [Levy] would leave those services and come out with the understanding that Judaism wasn’t a white religion and that it had roots in Africa,” Rabbi Sholomo Levy said. The black Jews point to biblical texts, particularly Deuteronomy, as evidence of their lost Jewish roots.
Some even propose that slave were forced to convert to Christianity from Judaism upon arrival in America –– hence they “return” as opposed to convert, to Judaism.
After two years at City College Levy enrolled in Matthew’s Ethiopian Hebrew Rabbinical College. He was ordained in 1967. That same year, Levy formed the Beth Shalom Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation out of eight families who would convene for services in his Queens living room.
In the 1960s, Levy and Matthew made several attempts to integrate themselves into the larger Jewish community. They lobbied B’nai B’rith chapters and made their case on the radio, but to no avail. Despite a strict adherence to Jewish law that made the Reform and Conservative movements seem lax, the Orthodox establishment turned the black Jews away. After two bids to join the New York Board of Rabbis proved unsuccessful, Levy and his mentor, Matthew, refocused their efforts on establishing a separate black Jewish community.
While the Orthodox eschewed the black Jews, there were those who embraced them. One was Rabbi Irving Block, the rabbi of Manhattan’s Brotherhood Synagogue, who traces his involvement with the black Jewish community to hid years as a rabbinical student, when he had a chance meeting with Matthew. “These people simply have a love for Judaism and we should take them into our hearts,” Rabbi Block said “What we have in our midst is precious material.”
Levi was elected in 1977 as the chief rabbi of the International Israelite Board of Rabbis, which he helped establish. Committed to unifying the factionalized black Jews, Levy organized in Chicago the first ever national convention of black Jews, or Hebrew Israelites, as they are sometimes called. At the 1981 convention, Levy drafted Resolution 801A, which called for all black Jews to work together and foster mutual respect. “One of his favorite passages to quote was Psalms 133, which means “Behold how pleasant it is to dwell with your brothers,”’ Rabbi Sholomo Levy said.
In his later years, Levy turned to computer technology to spread his message, Levy’s son Rabbi Benyamin Levy said. Levy created a black Jewish website, and during his final days in the hospital, he used a laptop computer to answer e-mail and update the website.
When it became clear, just before Passover, that Levy’s chemotherapy was failing; Levy hoped that he would live through the holiday. “He actually died right after the eighth night. We counted the omer for the seventh night, and then it was over,” Rabbi Benyamin Levy said.
He is survived by his wife, the former Deborah Byrd; two sons Rabbis Sholomo and Benyamin Levy, of New York City; four daughters, Deborah Jacksons, Yehudith Holder, Tamar Lemoine, and Zipporah Propheet, all of New York City; two brothers, Isaac Mckethan of N.Y., and Frank Mckethan of N.C.; four sisters, Enola McNeil of Md., Irene Elliot of N.C. and Lilian Issac of N.C. and Laura Brown of N.Y., and nine grandchildren.