Chicago — The ordination took place on a sun-drenched Sabbath, in a synagogue used many decades ago by Lithuanian Jews. But on June 23, it was 200 mostly black worshippers, many in brightly colored African dress, who were on their feet, eyes fixed on a procession of eight white-robed rabbis with ceremonial miters crowning their heads as they strode, single file, down the aisle separating the men’s and women’s seating.
All were gathered at Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation to create a new rabbi for this small, passionate but scarcely known tradition of black Judaism.
Read the Forward’s account of Black Jewish services. It’s not your typical Saturday at shul.
Though it was mid-afternoon and the morning shacharit service was long finished, very few had left the sanctuary; the ordination of the new rabbi was the day’s big event. As a delegation of black Jews visiting from New York for the important occasion looked on, the rabbis mounted the bimah and, with the open ark as a backdrop, arranged themselves into a half circle and faced the congregation.
For many mainstream Jews, this is a ceremony that might seem alien. But today, the differences between them and these black Jews, who have long been ignored or dismissed as inauthentic by the Jewish establishment, seems more like one of culture and ethnicity than Jewish identity.
While they once called themselves Hebrew Israelites exclusively to distinguish themselves from Jews of European extraction, the black Jews now readily count themselves among the Jewish people without qualification. An increasing number seek out formal conversion, a practice previously seen only as a concession to the expectations of mainstream Jews. Some 85% of the members at Beth Shalom have done so, according to Rabbi Capers Funnye (pronounced Fun-NAY), their spiritual leader, who is himself a member of the mainstream Chicago Board of Rabbis (and cousin to First Lady Michelle Obama).
Today, a cadre of teens and young adults have graduated from yeshivas and Jewish day schools, creating educational parity and a shared frame of reference with the wider Jewish community. And last year, Israel’s ambassador to Washington, Michael Oren, paid an unprecedented visit to a black synagogue, Temple Bethel in Philadelphia, and told them, “We are a single people endowed with the same blessings and obligations. Israel belongs to us all.”
Back in Chicago, the man for whom the ordination ceremony was intended was last in line to mount the bimah. Wearing a knit skullcap, James Brazelton ascended and knelt in front of the Ark. A fit and youthful 62-year-old Vietnam War veteran with a broad smile, Brazelton was raised as a Baptist, became a Hebrew Israelite in the early 1970s and was converted by a Conservative beit din, or religious court, in 2003.
Rabbi Sholomo ben Levy, president of the Israelite Board of Rabbis, dabbed oil on the forehead of the kneeling man. Then, Funnye, as spiritual leader of the host synagogue, removed Brazelton’s kippah and replaced it with a tall white miter, a head covering worn by the high priest in the ancient Temple. After reading proclamations extolling his achievements, the attending rabbis helped Brazelton rise, now transformed into Rabbi Yahath ben Yehuda (the name Yahath is found in I Chronicles). He turned a beaming face to the congregation, who acknowledged him with applause, hallelujahs and flashing iPhone cameras.