In the Spirit of Abraham
To be Hebrew is to be defined by Abraham. To be an Israelite is to be spiritually descended from Abraham’s grandson, Jacob. “We are Hebrew Israelites,” says Rabbi Hailu Moshe Paris, Rabbi Emeritus of the Mount Horeb Synagogue in the Bronx. “And as children of Jacob, our commandment is to follow the laws of Moses as given in the Torah.”
Spawned by the inspiration of the African nationalist Marcus Garvey, Hebraic spiritual stirrings took root in the African American community at the close of the 19th century. Out of this culturally aroused movement, dedicated to untangling and reclaiming Africa’s past, grew bands of religiously committed Hebrews.
Today, unrecognized numbers of African Americans in the United States observe Hebraism. This article focuses on the orthodox – those African Americans who adhere unswervingly to the laws of the Torah and whose practice traces its ideology and in some cases its roots directly to the new self-awareness awakened by the Garvey movement. Orthodox communities call themselves Hebrew Israelites, and Ethiopian Hebrews.
The first African American synagogue in New York City, called The Commandment Keepers or Beth Ha-Tefilah Synagogue, was established in 1913 in Harlem by Rabbi Wentworth Arthur Matthew, who worked in partnership with Rabbi Arnold Josiah Ford, Marcus Garvey’s musical director. Rabbi Matthew also founded the Ethiopian Hebrew Rabbinical College, renamed the Israelite Rabbinical Academy in 1971, at which Rabbi Paris and a multitude of other leaders in the African American Hebrew community have been ordained. Congregations of New York African American Hebrews practice in Mount Vernon, Manhattan, The Bronx, Queens, and Brooklyn. African American Hebrews organized in Philadelphia at the beginning of the century. Other strong congregations worship in Richmond, VA, Louisville, KY, and Chicago, IL. Some of these have made and maintain contact with Judaic communities in Africa.
The routes to Hebraism for Continental and Diasporan Africans are varied. Ethiopians in Africa, coming to Hebraism by birth, have a direct, uninterrupted 5,000-year link to their heritage. western africans believe In the Americas, those with African blood are likely to come to this way of life in one of three ways. Through intermarriage, many thousands of sons and daughters of Sephardic Jewish men and African American women – mostly in the Caribbean and Brazil – still identify a Hebraic heritage and blood line, even though they may have lost a practicing Hebraic lifestyle. In North America the flow of Eastern European Jews into urban areas precipitated a group of Hebraic-indoctrinated descendants mostly from African American men and Eastern European Jewish women. The third group consists of reclaimants – African Americans seeking to reaffirm their Hebraic heritage according to their African ancestry, as first addressed in the Garvey movement.
“I started off thinking I was Christian. I was married in the Baptist Church,” says Rabbi Rafael Tate, leader of the Beth Shalom Synagogue in Brooklyn, but in his family vestiges of a Hebraic heritage endured. He recalls a photograph of a maternal Great-uncle wearing a yarmulke and talit although whether his ancestor came to Hebrew under the tutelage of a Jewish slave holder or preserved his own African heritage, he has no idea. Likely, he speculates, it was the tradition from a slave holder. Today, Rabbi Tate has embraced Hebraic way of life – “it teaches you how to live, how to take care of your body, how to treat your fellow man. Any problems you have can be answered by the Torah.” He brought his children up strictly as Israelites and credits the structured family orientation of the Torah with helping him maintain communication and discipline. Rabbi Tate is a no-nonsense, straight-talking streetwise Brooklynite whose background is labor. Like most African Americans in the faith he devotes himself to the study of the Torah and to researching his African heritage.
Rabbi Hailu Paris was born an intellectual. Even the simplest question elicits a detailed, fact-heavy answer. As a young orphaned Ethiopian child, he was adopted by Caribbean Hebrew parents and brought up in the faith, graduating from Yeshiva University and being ordained by the Israelite Rabbinical Academy. Today he tends to his congregation in The Bronx, is an instructor at the Israelite Rabbinical Institute, and in the vanguard of those researching Africa’s lost legacy – especially in the tradition of Hebrew.
The landscape of an African American Hebrew is peppered with mine fields. African American Hebrews feel a bit under siege from both the European Jewish community and fellow African Americans. Within the strongly Christian African American community, African Hebrews may be looked upon as traitors for following the faith of the Jews who demanded the death of Christ as portrayed in the New Testament of the Bible. For some other African Americans, Hebrew suggests exploitative merchants.
Many African American Hebrews resent the so-called necessity to convert according to European rabbinical laws – the Halacha teachings – in order to be recognized by European Jews as bona fide Hebrews. According to Rabbi Hailu Paris, “European Jews have a little trouble with the Black Christian but a lot of trouble with the Black Jew.” African Americans perceive the European rabbinical tradition as arbitrary and bent on hobbling their own rediscovery of the Africanness of Hebrewism. They identify an African ancestry for Moses who took up the cause to fight for the liberation of the oppressed peoples in ancient Egypt. “How else,” says Rabbi Rafael Tate, “could Moses be mistaken for an Egyptian?”
African Americans believe a strict adherence to the Torah is what is required to be a practitioner of Hebrew. They study, they read, they worship, and they observe the Shabbath and the dietary laws. A visit to African American synagogues reveals worshipping men in talits and yarmulkes and women with covered heads and shawls, and as according to tradition the sexes are separated. Hebrew rises from their lips.
As mandated by the Torah, African American congregations, like other Jewish worshippers worldwide, keep the High Holy Days, or the Ten Days of Awe, devoted to introspection and punctuated by the daily blowing of the Shofar. On the tenth day of Rosh Hashana, they observe Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement when God passes judgment on every individual. In spring, Passover or Pesach commemorates the 40-year trek through the desert to the Promised Land. In fall, the pilgrim holiday of Sukkot or Tabernacles (the festival of temporary booths) celebrates the harvest and Simchat Torah, the completion of the annual reading of the Torah, is recognized with much rejoicing.
In many synagogues, you’ll find celebrations particular to the African Diasporan bitter sojourn in America. Within a religion that promotes self-awareness, you’d expect as much. These include Maafa to consecrate the memory of the millions of Africans who died on the Middle Passage crossing the Atlantic Ocean and whose watery graves represent the largest cemetery in the world; Kwanzaa to give honor to the memory and heritage of Africa; and Juneteenth commemorating the emancipation of the last of enslaved Africans west of the Mississippi River.
“The Torah is the incredible wisdom of our ancestors. It is a message delivered by the Almighty One to the Chosen People,” says Rabbi Rafael Tate. “The Torah does not say the Chosen People are of a particular race but are a diverse people with twelve different aspects. I am thankful to the Askenazi Jews of Europe for preserving our collective legacy and bringing it forth to us now. But they are not the only ones who were chosen, they are one of the many. The Torah tells us that Jerusalem will not rise to its divinity until all the many return and join together, only then will the Divine One return to us.”