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The ordination pageant is rooted in biblical imagery. But that is not unusual for a movement whose modes of worship are at once traditional and steeped in black religious expression. The earlier three-hour Sabbath morning service, or shacharit, for example, was based on the Orthodox ArtScroll prayer book. But the inspirational preaching, punctuated by frequent cries of hallelujah, emet (truth) and ken (yes) from the worshippers, would be unusual in most synagogues. Even more so the joyful music of the choir, and its full rhythm section of keyboard, guitar and drums to sanctify the day.
The Hebrew Israelites’ Jewish practice began more than 90 years ago, when Wentworth A. Matthew, an immigrant to New York from the West Indies, established a Harlem congregation known as the Commandment Keepers in 1920. Matthew, revered as the founding rabbi of the movement, also created a precursor to the Israelite Rabbinical Academy, which trained rabbis to lead prayers and rituals fashioned after the Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews who were his neighbors in Harlem.
Over several decades, a dozen or so Matthew-inspired synagogues sprouted up in Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx and Harlem. Matthew taught that Hebrew Israelites had no need to conform to the conversion requirements of mainstream white denominations; nor did he himself seek smicha — formal rabbinic ordination via an established rabbi or rabbinic panel — to function as a rabbi. Matthew avowed that all this was unnecessary because the roots of black identity reached back to the Israelites of the Torah. Black Jews, even today, view themselves as having returned to their true identity, which was obliterated by the catastrophic Middle Passage into slavery, when millions of Africans were torn from their homeland and dispersed, effectively erasing their history, culture and family ties.
As if echoing history, black Jews in the US today feel a connection to African groups who identify as Jews. Funnye has traveled to Nigeria, South Africa, and Uganda to connect with and assist in the education of the Lemba, Igbo, and Abayudyah — ethnic groups with members who assert a Jewish identity. A bridge-builder, Funnye is associate director of Be’chol Lashon (In Every Tongue), a San Francisco-based nonprofit that advocates for inclusiveness and diversity among the Jewish people and sponsors his work in Africa.
Yahath, the movement’s newest cleric, began studying Hebrew and attending Sabbath services in the early 1970s. “When I returned from Vietnam in 1972,” he told the Forward, “I knew Christianity didn’t satisfy me. I was searching spiritually, until a friend talked to me about the idea that black people in America were connected to the Israelites in the Torah. That was the beginning.”
In 2003, he enrolled part time at the Israelite Rabbinical Academy, intending to become a mohel because the black Jews of Chicago don’t have anyone in their community to perform ritual circumcisions. “But we couldn’t get anyone to train us,” he remarked pointedly, referring to the mainstream Jewish community.
As he began rabbinical training, Brazelton chose for pragmatic reasons to undergo a Conservative conversion, although Hebrew Israelites feel it should not be necessary. “We think of it as ‘reversion,’ not conversion,” Yahath said. “I did it to remove any doubts in the minds of others.” Funnye, his mentor, was raised as a Methodist and had a formal conversion himself for the same reason. For those in his congregation, the process generally includes 18 months of study and meeting the requirements of Chicago’s Conservative beit din. There are no data on how many of the Hebrew Israelites, who Funnye says number some 10,000 nationally, have undergone formal conversions.