They’re Jewish, With a Gospel Accent
Fifty years ago, a Saturday visitor to the small synagogue on Willoughby Avenue near Throop Street in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, would have come upon a congregation reading prayers and singing, the men and women separated, as Orthodox Jewish law demands.
On Saturday, as muted sunlight shone through the synagogue’s high arched windows, some things had not changed. A rabbi intoned a prayer in Hebrew. The men and women were separated again, sitting on opposite sides of the aisle. Prompted by the rabbi, the congregation solemnly began a song called ”This Is the Torah.”
Then the voices grew louder. The singers began to sway, and some broke into two-part harmony.
”Glory!” yelled a woman, an aqua-blue chiffon scarf draped over her head.
”Ooh, that sounds so good!” murmured another singer, whose dreadlocks poured out from under a small lace cap.
By the next song the solemnity had disappeared. Dressed variously in dark suits, multicolored African prints and Middle Eastern caps and smocks, the worshipers danced, clapped, stomped and shook tambourines in a gospel spiritual style more commonly associated with black Baptist churches than with Jewish ceremonies.
Which was fine with them.
For they were black, and some grew up with gospel church traditions but others’ families have been Jewish for generations.
They are Hebrew Israelites, an 80-year-old association of black Americans with Judaic beliefs, though many ”don’t identify ourselves as Jews,” said Eliezer Levi, one of six rabbinical students to be ordained at Saturday’s services. Wearing a gold Star of David pendant and a small woven skullcap, Mr. Levi acknowledged that the Hebrew Israelites’ attention to the Torah, their celebration of bar mitzvahs, and their sense of Israel as homeland in many ways matched that of Jews from Europe and the Middle East. But personally, he said, he preferred to be called a Hebrew Israelite.
It was a term heard often this weekend at a four-day, multicongregation conference of Hebrew Israelites that included Saturday’s ordination as well as slide shows, dance and music performances, a black-tie banquet and a colorful parade yesterday around Marcus Garvey Memorial Park in Harlem. Members came from as far as Mississippi, Barbados, Guyana and Israel to watch the white-robed rabbinical students be anointed with oil and physically lifted, one by one, from a kneeling position to stand among their fellow rabbis.
Estimates of how many Hebrew Israelites live in the United States range from 40,000 to 500,000, an accurate counting made impossible by the diversity of styles and beliefs. Many followed the teachings of a rabbi named Wentworth Arthur Matthew, who founded a congregation in Harlem in 1919. Noting that some African-Americans retained dietary laws and observed holidays that were similar to Judaic ones, and seeing parallels with biblical prophecies in which Israelites were enslaved and scattered across the world, Rabbi Matthew decided that Judaism had been the original belief system of many Africans. Blacks who followed him would not be converting, he said, but simply coming back to the fold.
Over the years, the groups branched out, and now there are about 10 congregations active in New York City and many more throughout the country, all embodying varying aspects of Jewishness. (The congregations, however, have only the most tenuous links to the street preachers known as Hebrew Israelites, or Black Israelites, a separatist group whose anti-white invective has been a fixture for years in Times Square and Harlem.)
The two-story brick building on Willoughby Avenue was once a model if not for assimilation, then for peaceful coexistence. Originally home to Young Israel of Williamsburg, a white Orthodox temple, in the 1960’s its congregation invited the Hebrew Israelites, new to Bedford-Stuyvesant, to share their space, said Rabbi Sholomo Ben Levy, who serves a black synagogue in Queens. The groups held separate services at first, but over time, some of the older members of the first congregation started attending the black services.
”This one was a good experiment,” he said, noting that as the neighborhood’s white population dwindled and its black population increased, many synagogues were being transformed into churches. ”The people who owned this building were happy to see it become a synagogue, even if a black synagogue, rather than becoming a black church,” he said. Eventually, the black group bought the building, renaming it the Beth Shalom Hebrew Congregation.
But often, the mixing has not worked so well. Rabbi Raphael Tate, assistant rabbi at Beth Shalom, said his grandchildren, who attended a mostly white yeshiva in Chicago, ”have been through hell” because of racial prejudice. ”The color of your skin shouldn’t determine whether you’re Jewish or not,” he said.
There has been conflict, too, among Hebrew Israelites, said Rabbi Levy. Some groups say others are not Jewish enough, others are accused of pandering to the rules of white Jewish culture, some include New Testament elements in their worship, and some promulgate more militant, black separatist beliefs.
That is why, for Rabbi Levy, the highlight of this weekend’s events was not the ordination or the parade, but the fact that so many different groups had come together. ”It’s been very fractious,” he said, surveying the synagogue’s large basement, where worshipers from various congregations feasted on turkey, fried fish and pasta salad. ”This is a milestone.”