African, American, and Israelite

There is a fascinating array of combinations of African and Jewish identity. The best known in ashkenazi American Jewish circles is probably the Ethipian Jewish community in Israel. It may come as a surprise to most white Jews that at one point there were more Black Nationalist Jews than there were Black Nationalist Muslims in the US. Several years ago while visiting friends in New York, Max Levis asked me whether I’d like to join him for shul the next morning at a Black shtiebel. It sounded interesting so we walked to Harlem.

When we arrived I found a congregation the likes of which I had never experienced. First, it was quite hard to get in. Who are you? Where are you from? How did you hear about us? Lots of questions came before the door was opened. When we went upstairs to the sanctuary it looked rather like a small frum shul with a Hammond Organ. There were 9 guys and about 8 women there when we arrived separated into front and back sections. The guy on the bimah said, “great now we have a minyan.” They had the nylon tallitot like one would find in most suburban synagogues. Most of the davening followed the nusach and general musical modes i am used to finding in a conservative or orthodox shul. Things proceeded quite ordinarily, except that Max and I were the only white guys, until after the putting away the torahs (or maybe before taking them out, i don’t remember exactly) the shaliach tzibur turned to face the open ark and torahs, lifted his palms and began to pray in english in preacher’s singsong intonation for the benefit of the congregation. It reminded me of some of the intercessory stories about the Baal Shem Tov. I heard and studied. The other leader gave a homely of sorts. He spoke about that week’s torah portion after the full portion had been read aloud from the scroll. While he was speaking the congregation responded with phrases such as “preach it rabbi”, “oh yes”, and “say it loud”. It was a lot like the response to preaching i heard while I was visiting churches in the south.

The congregation in Harlem was pretty clearly similar to ashkenazi congregations of various sorts. This contrasted with a congregation i met while at Brown Hillel. That group was much less clearly aesthetically and theologically similar in the way they designed their worship to what I am used to. They would occasionally say Jesus and fall into the broader camp of Black Israelites who mix Judaism and Christianity. Mike Rozensher sent me the clip below. It is a fascinating profile of a Black Shul in Chicago from WTTW Channel 11′s Chicago Tonight.


Beth Shalom members mostly consider themselves Hebrew Israelites. Many of the Hebrew Israelite movement concentrated on bible study but not the torah service or shacharit/mincha/maariv. This is discussed at 4:43 in the clip above. Since the 1940s a shul in New York has used full chanting with shacharit, the torah service, and a full kriyah. I presume the shul refered to is the one in Harlem i described earlier. The Chicago Congregation’s Rabbi Funnye was the first African-American member of the Chicago Board of Rabbis.

Some folks who are Black and Israelite are also halchically Jewish but most haven’t converted and have an unclear connection with Rabbinic Judaism. How should we regard folks in these congregations? We should clearly be understanding their history, culture, and identities better and connect more. Perhaps we can share niggunim and work together towards common causes. Should we accept the claim that folks are Jewish for ritual purposes? Should one offer an aliyah or invite a Hebrew Israelite to make Kiddush? Would anyone in that community make the claim that they are rabbinic/halachic Jews?

Really, I have more questions than answers having experiences several wildly different folks with combinations of African and Jewish identity from the shuls in mentioned above to the guys in tunics i encountered at the subway station while growing up in philadelphia. those guys preached on the sidewalk with mics and generators about things like how real descendants of the Israelites are black and invented Kung Fu. The identity questions are fascinating and complicated. In many ways the Exodus narrative speaks more loudly and clearly to American descendants of Slaves than descendants or European merchants. How does one gain the right to a narrative? Who is legitimate? Frankly, I don’t have a lot of good answers, only interest.

Here is a pair of resources in case folks are interested:

Here is the wikipedia article laying out some of the African/Israelite/Jewish/Christian groups.
Here is an article on the UJC website about Black Jews including a bit on Funnye.

Filed under *Uncategorized

12 Responses to “African, American, and Israelite”

  1. Did you go to the Commandment Keepers synagogue? There’s a quick scene of their shul in what I believe is Easy Harlem towards the end of the film The Angel Levine. (Great quirky little film from the late 60s- Sidney Poitier comes to Zero Mostel as a Jewish black angel named Alexander Levine and leads Mostel on a weird, fairly unfulfilling search for spiritual meaning. And matza brei.)


    rokhl · September 6th, 2007 at 3:04 pm
  2. Who is this “we” that you speak of? This whole post has a very us/them mentality that assumes that none of your readers are Black Jews but instead presumes whiteness (and probably Ashkenazi-ness). Maybe instead of (or at least in addition to) positioning ourselves as white outsiders anthropologically observing Black Jewish communities and acting as judges of their Jewishness and identities, Jewschool could find someone who is actually a member of this community to post about their faith and their identity? Or could find first-person writings by Black Jews (there are plenty) to discuss. Just a thought. While clearly as Jews we must maintain the boundaries of our faith, it makes me sad that with as diverse a Jewish community as we have, the only discourse that goes on in predominantly white Jewish communities that relates to Jews of color is “are they really Jewish?” It always comes down to a discussion that is about us (white Jews) proving or disproving “them” being “just like us”. The voices of people of color themselves are nearly always left out.

    Please don’t take this personally – Clearly you are trying to be respectful. My observations are not about this post as much as they are about the general coverage of these issues by white/Ashkenazi Jews. A cautionary word about the direction these conversations often go in. It would be great to see more coverage of race and ethnicity within the Jewish community here on Jewschool.


    Hineini · September 6th, 2007 at 3:20 pm
  3. that’s a very important point.
    i don’t think it’s fair to imply that jews of color are necessarily grouped into communities separate from communities who are oriented towards rabbinic judaism. I have been blessed to be in many diverse Jewish communities over the years and in those contexts. In many of them there were folks of color who converted to judaism. this is a very different situation than most of the Hebrew Israelite communities as most I have encountered grew out of Black Nationalism and as a result have a separate system that historically hasn’t interacted much with the primarily white Ashkenazi, Mizrachi, and Sephardi US system. Those three communities and their sub-communities tend to have and ongoing connection to Judaism lasting at least to the Classical period. now I have digressed back into talking about who is/isn’t jewish. i hope that we can have a more robust dialogue over the theological, spiritual, musical, etc aspects of black jewish communities.
    it sounds like you have some interesting insights into these issues, and I’d love to hear more and move beyond the are-they-jewish discussion.


    zt · September 6th, 2007 at 3:49 pm
  4. I know Rabbi Funnye well (for those who have not watched the video, he is the rabbi of the Chicago shul). In fact, he is on the Chicago board of rabbis. I know that he has done a great deal to bridge the gap between the Hebrew Israelite community and the larger Jewish community. As a Jew of color, I want to say a big “amen” to Hineini’s post. I am part of a number of Jewish “diverstiy” organizations that attempt to remind the Jewish people that we have always been a multiethnic/multiracial people.


    Chaim (Chris) · September 6th, 2007 at 4:23 pm
  5. Chaim is correct. Modern Ashkenazi and Sephardim are already a multiethnic mix of Middle Eastern and European peoples. Many of the first Jewish settlements in Europe began not as whole families emigrating together, but unmarried young men seeking out a living in the larger Mediterranean world– and so they often started their families with indiginous women– and this process continued for generations as Jews established settlements into the western most and northern most reaches of the Roman Empire.


    IanThal · September 6th, 2007 at 6:04 pm
  6. Okay, what? Black Israelites and Jews who happened to be Black in appearance shouldn’t be confused at all by anyone even vaguely educated on their distinct cultures. While well meaning, this report seems to be a bit naive. This is a bit like exploring some “neo-Hasidic/Carlbach” congregation (to borrow Matzat’s own made up terms from ShulShopper) and making a point to say these people aren’t like the Jews for Jesus you saw one time. Actually, that comparison might be more apt. Really, it’s cool you visited their services, and allowed them a minyon but now you’re objectifying their skin color.


    wordsworth · September 6th, 2007 at 11:12 pm
  7. A MIXED MULTITUDE INDEED… Chaim is right… sort of…

    R. Funnye is well-respected in Chicago. But the congregation itself is geographically and somewhat socialogically isolated from the rest of the community. There’s been some movement to change the latter, but as I understand it, their membership’s inclusion of ‘Black Hebrews’ with a rejectionist view point coupled with the geopgrahy continues to contribute toward a lack of acceptance, for better or worse.

    Other congregations in more densely ‘Jewish’ neighborhoods do have sprinklings of color in them and there’s not an issue there that I have seen. But perhaps others know better.

    There’s a Black congregation in Philly. Anyone know about it?


    adam davis · September 7th, 2007 at 1:39 am
  8. i don’t know much about the Black Hebrew congregation in Philly but it was just a couple miles from my parents’ house and we visited once when i was a kid.


    zt · September 7th, 2007 at 9:44 am
  9. As far as i am aware someone that identiies as a Jew and keeps the major Jewish laws and rituals is assumed to be Jewish.

    I’m just personally slightly uncomfortable with the microphone/guitar playing -but then i would be in any shul that did that.

    I believe that there is a frum shul in Crown Heights which is mainly a community of jews of colour.

    But i find it difficult when people use race or skin color as a basis for religous dogma,

    I’m Jewish because I am, whatever my skin colour is. Who i more Jewish/ the ‘Real Jews’ is a stupid stupid question and argument.


    Atzmus · September 9th, 2007 at 8:19 am
  10. I actually spent some time with the prince of the Black Hebrews. You can see my article on him here: www.ajlmagazine.com/content/032007/blackhebrews.html.

    Our magazine also did an entire issue devoted to the diversity of Black Jewry. If you missed it, you can see it archived online here: www.ajlmagazine.com/archives/2007/janfeb.html.

    – Benyamin


    Benyamin Cohen · September 9th, 2007 at 5:31 pm
  11. the questions about these guys jewishness isn’t primarily based on their skin color. that is naive oversimplification. the reason the identity questions are interesting is because the folks i have met and read of mostly come from Christian backgrounds and never underwent any sort of rabbinically sanctioned conversion. part of the reason is the role of black nationalism in the rise of black israelite congregations. are there other groups in the US who claim jewish identities en masse without conversion of the basis of a claim of 12 tribe ancestry?


    zt · September 11th, 2007 at 9:51 pm
  12. Atzmus wrote: “As far as i am aware someone that identifies as a Jew and keeps the major Jewish laws and rituals is assumed to be Jewish.”

    When you say “is assumed,” who is doing the assuming? Thanks.


    Phil · September 30th, 2007 at 11:40 pm

Leave a Reply

If your comment does not immediately appear, do not freak out and repost your message a dozen times. Please note that all new visitors must have their first comment approved by the editor, and you must provide a legitimate e-mail address and use the same username for the system to "remember" you. The editor maintains the right to refuse comments deemed inappropriate or unhelpful. Users who repeatedly delve into ad hominem attacks or other troll-like behavior will be banned.

Trackback (Right-click & 'Copy Link...') | Comments RSS

"I may attack a certain point of view which I consider false, but I will never attack a person who preaches it. I have always a high regard for the individual who is honest and moral, even when I am not in agreement with him. Such a relation is in accord with the concept of kavod habriyot, for beloved is man for he is created in the image of God." —Rav Joseph Soloveitchik