Black Jews Gain Wider Acceptance

Gaps Between African-American and Mainstream Groups Narrow

Solemn Service: Rabbi Capers Funnye places a miter on the head of rabbi-to-be James Brazelton.
michael eldridge
Solemn Service: Rabbi Capers Funnye places a miter on the head of rabbi-to-be James Brazelton.

By Len Lyons

Published July 23, 2012, issue of July 27, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

(page 2 of 3)

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.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Did Hamas just take credit for kidnapping the three Israeli teens?
  • "We know what it means to be in the headlines. We know what it feels like when the world sits idly by and watches the news from the luxury of their living room couches. We know the pain of silence. We know the agony of inaction."
  • When YA romance becomes "Hasidsploitation":
  • "I am wrapping up the summer with a beach vacation with my non-Jewish in-laws. They’re good people and real leftists who try to live the values they preach. This was a quality I admired, until the latest war in Gaza. Now they are adamant that American Jews need to take more responsibility for the deaths in Gaza. They are educated people who understand the political complexity, but I don’t think they get the emotional complexity of being an American Jew who is capable of criticizing Israel but still feels a deep connection to it. How can I get this across to them?"
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • Why did David Menachem Gordon join the IDF? In his own words: "The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation’s survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation… Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States."
  • Leonard Fein's most enduring legacy may be his rejection of dualism: the idea that Jews must choose between assertiveness and compassion, between tribalism and universalism. Steven M. Cohen remembers a great Jewish progressive:
  • BREAKING: Missing lone soldier David Menachem Gordon has been found dead in central Israel. The Ohio native was 21 years old.
  • “They think they can slap on an Amish hat and a long black robe, and they’ve created a Hasid." What do you think of Hollywood's portrayal of Hasidic Jews?
  • “I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager. I didn’t think I would have to do it when I was 90.” Hedy Epstein fled Nazi Germany in 1933 on a Kinderstransport.
  • "A few decades ago, it would have been easy to add Jews to that list of disempowered victims. I could throw in Leo Frank, the victim of mob justice; or otherwise privileged Jewish men denied entrance to elite universities. These days, however, we have to search a lot harder." Are you worried about what's going in on #Ferguson?
  • Will you accept the challenge?
  • In the six years since Dothan launched its relocation program, 8 families have made the jump — but will they stay? We went there to find out:
  • "Jewish Israelis and West Bank Palestinians are witnessing — and living — two very different wars." Naomi Zeveloff's first on-the-ground dispatch from Israel:
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.