Decline Of A Black Synagogue
Amid legal battles that have gone on for many years, historic Harlem congregation has almost disappeared.
Carla McIntosh, a 46-year-old Harlem resident, had been attending the Commandment Keepers synagogue – the nation’s oldest African-American congregation – for nearly her entire life. Both her parents were Jews, followers of the congregation’s founder, Rabbi Wentworth Arthur Matthew. And Carla’s children, teenagers who go to an Orthodox yeshiva in Westchester, had attended, too.
But four years ago, the McIntoshes severed their ties with Commandment Keepers.
That is when a then three-decades-old battle over the congregation’s leadership first landed in Manhattan Supreme Court. The board of the synagogue had sued Rabbi David Matthew Dor, a grandson of the congregation’s founder, for wrongfully claiming himself the spiritual leader.
The case, which ruled in the board’s favor, ended last year, but a new legal battle has just begun, as Rabbi Dor is now suing the board for selling the building – a registered New York historic landmark – on April 23 for $1.6 million. At the first hearing last week, tensions were ripe throughout the day as the wife of the current rabbi exchanged scowls with supporters from the Dor camp.
“The loss is devastating just in terms of the historic importance of the synagogue,” said McIntosh. “Everything transpired to destroy that congregation.”
Though the selling of synagogues – and ugly legal battles often filed in their wake – is not uncommon, few have unfolded in such dramatic fashion, and over such a long period of time. Rabbi Dor claims that he and his family members have been locked out of the building, located at 1 W. 123rd St. in East Harlem, for decades. In the current lawsuit, he also claims the board has stolen hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of religious artifacts.
The current board alleges Rabbi Dor broke into the building several years ago, and that more recently, followers of his punched the board’s president and a former rabbi’s wife in the face.
It is an ugly battle that is compounded by the historic importance of the congregation. Founded in 1919 by Rabbi Matthew, a West Indian immigrant born to an Ethiopian Jewish father, Commandment Keepers gradually came to follow Orthodox Jewish practices. Members observed all Jewish holidays, kept kosher, performed circumcisions and bar mitzvahs, and the synagogue had a mechitza separating men’s and women’s seats.
In 1937, there were about 600 black Jews in Harlem who belonged to Rabbi Matthew’s synagogue, according to a report in Time magazine that year. Most were from Ethiopia, and a few were American converts, said the article, which noted that Rabbi Matthew was born in Lagos, West Africa, and held a doctor of divinity degree from the University of Berlin, having studied in Tel Aviv and at the Pittsburgh Bible Institute.
During the height of the civil rights era, the progressive Rabbi Irving Block, a graduate of the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary, befriended Rabbi Matthew and encouraged him to apply to the New York Board of Rabbis and B’nai B’rith. Both men hoped it would bring Rabbi Matthew’s followers into the fold of mainstream American Judaism.
Rabbi Matthew applied repeatedly to both boards, but was denied each time. The boards’ official reason for rejecting Rabbi Matthew was that he was not ordained by one of their affiliated seminaries, according to Rabbi Sholomo ben Levy, the president of the Israelite Board of Rabbis, the current seminary for black rabbis. The question of black Jewish authenticity remained an open question, and remains one still, after Rabbi Matthew died in 1973.
That year is when the battle over Commandment Keepers turned inward.
Rabbi Dor, ordained along with several others by his grandfather, was named spiritual leader of the congregation just before Rabbi Matthew’s death. Rabbi Dor was just 16 at the time.
“The appointment of Rabbi Dor caused a division within the synagogue,” said Gregory R. Preston, a lawyer for the Commandment Keepers’ board. “The question was who was going to be the spiritual leader of the synagogue.”
By 1975, the board of the congregation at the time decided to hold an election to designate a leader, according to the current board’s lawyers. (The board’s members did not want to speak on the record, deferring all comments to their lawyers.)
Thirty of the 31 congregants who voted chose Rabbi Willie White, also ordained by Rabbi Matthew, as its leader, said Preston.
Both Preston and Rabbi Dor, as well as other black rabbis interviewed for this article with ties to Commandment Keepers, say that Dor and other rabbis conducted services jointly, however, even after Rabbi White’s election.
“It wasn’t until the early 1980s,” Dor said, “that Rabbi White began locking people out.”
Dor, who by then was working full-time as a lawyer, began observing the Sabbath at the home of friends and family. Though occasionally, he and other supporters of his said, they would try to get into the synagogue. Rabbi Dor’s nephew even had his bar mitzvah outside the building – an event covered by The New York Amsterdam News, the historic black newspaper – in 1994.
It is around that time that Julian Wormley entered the picture.
Wormley married Rabbi White’s daughter, and in the early1990s began attending Commandment Keepers. Early in 1996, Rabbi White, whose health was rapidly declining, appointed Wormley president. Several months later Wormley was elected to that post officially, Preston says. (He did not know how many members voted, or how many members in total Commandment Keepers had at that time.)
By all accounts, membership at the synagogue was steadily declining throughout the 1990s. One member, who joined in the mid-1990s and left after the first lawsuit was filed in 2004, put the number upon her departure at 25 regular attendees, at most. The source, who does not personally know Rabbi Dor, asked to remain anonymous.
While problems increasingly beset Commandment Keepers, the center of black Jews shifted in practical terms.
Rabbi Matthew’s ordaining body, the Ethiopian Rabbinical College, had been taken over by one of his students, Rabbi Levi Ben Levy (the father of Rabbi Sholomo Ben Levy) after Rabbi Matthew’s death. Rabbi Levy renamed the body the Israelite Rabbinical Academy, trying to prevent confusion over the movement’s origins. The school was housed in the Beth Elohim Hebrew Congregation, in Queens, one of two congregations founded by Rabbi Levy.
In effect, the Israelite Rabbinical Academy and its affiliated Israelite Board of Rabbis became the functioning home of Rabbi Matthew’s brand of Judaism. Today, there are about ten congregations in New York with rabbis ordained by the Israelite Rabbinical Academy.
Though none are members of the New York Board of Rabbis, they participate informally with other New York Jewish congregations. Two weeks ago, for instance, they were invited to Mayor Bloomberg’s celebration of the 40th anniversary of the unification of Jerusalem.
(There are an estimated 50,000 to 150,000 “black Jews” in America, according to Gary Tobin, a San Francisco-based demographer who studies the black Jewish community, though that number is based on the broadest possible definition, which includes those in congregations not affiliated with the Israelite Board of Rabbis.)
Given the Israelite Board of Rabbis’ current prevalence, its president, Rabbi Sholomo Ben Levy had invited Rabbi Dor and the rabbis at Commandment Keepers to its beit din, or religious court, to settle their issues.
“We’ve been asking both parties [to the court] before the building was sold, for many years now,” said Rabbi Levy, who also works as a professor of history at a community college in Pennsylvania. “But Dor refused.” Rabbi Levy also said that he is a friend of Rabbi Dor’s, and has a long-standing open invitation for Dor to sit on the Israelite Board of Rabbis.
The original lawsuit, from 2004, was filed against Rabbi Dor by the board of the Commandment Keepers, though. Rabbi Dor says by then, it was too late to settle the issue in any religious court.
That year, Rabbi Zechariah ben Lewi had become the rabbi at Commandment Keepers, and membership had fallen to eight, a number alleged by Rabbi Dor in his current suit and acknowledged by Preston, the board’s lawyer.
“The membership was dwindling and [my clients] were trying to breathe new life into the congregation,” Preston, the attorney, said in reference to why the board sold the building. He did not know where those members would come from, or where the last ones would go.
Nonetheless, Preston said, “They don’t even have a place to worship now because they’re in this lawsuit.”