Rabbi Levi Ben Levy, 64, Head of Black Jewish Group
Rabbi Levi Ben Levy, the chief rabbi of the Israelite Board of Rabbis for the New York metropolitan area and the Western Hemisphere, died on Friday at Mount Sinai Medical Center in Manhattan. He was 64 and lived in the Queens Village section of Queens.
The cause was leukemia, said his son Sholomo Ben Levy, also a rabbi.
The Israelite Board of Rabbis serves black Hebrew Israelites, as they prefer to be known by their fellow Jews and others.
David Pollock, the associate executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, said that members of ”Rabbi Levy’s group consider themselves part of the Jewish community, and everybody whom I know who has examined this group has concluded that they are part of the Jewish community.”
Rabbi Levy was born in Linden, N.C. In 1950, he moved to New York, where he met Rabbi Wentworth A. Matthew. Rabbi Matthew was born in Africa and, when he died in 1973, was described by his family as the first ordained black rabbi in the United States.
Rabbi Matthew established a black synagogue in Harlem. In 1925, he founded the Ethiopian Hebrew Rabbinical College, also in Harlem.
Rabbi Levy entered City College in 1957, but two years later, having decided to become a rabbi, he enrolled at the Ethiopian Hebrew Rabbinical College. He was ordained in 1967, a year after graduating. The college is now called the Israelite Rabbinical Academy.
Rabbi Levy was encouraged in his religious studies and works by Rabbi Matthew, who was also chief rabbi of the Israelite Board of Rabbis.
Rabbi Levy’s first synagogue, Beth Shalom Ethiopian Congregation, began on a modest scale, with eight families gathering in the living room of his Queens home. The congregation is now in Brooklyn.
Six years later, he was elected chief rabbi of the Israelite Board of Rabbis. At that time, the board’s responsibilities were limited to the New York metropolitan area, but later they were expanded to include new congregations in other countries in the Western Hemisphere. He held the title of chief rabbi at his death.
In 1988, Rabbi Sholomo Ben Levy, Rabbi Levi Ben Levy’s older son, became the spiritual leader of another synagogue, Beth Elohim Hebrew Congregation, which Rabbi Levi Ben Levy had founded in 1983 in Queens. Another son, Benyamin, became Sholomo’s assistant.
In later years, Rabbi Levi Ben Levy spent much of his retirement back in North Carolina, but he often traveled to New York to visit relatives and to advise Jewish organizations to which he had ties.
In addition to his sons, both Queens residents, Rabbi Levy is survived by his wife, the former Deborah Byrd; four daughters: Deborah, Yehudith, Tamar and Zipporah; two brothers: Issac and Frank McKethan; four sisters: Enola McNeil, Irene Elliot, Lillian Issac and Laura Brown, and nine grandchildren.