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.
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Those who become rabbis do it as a labor of love. There is no pay. Like the rabbis of long ago who lived in struggling communities, these rabbis work day jobs to support their own families. Brazelton is a plumber by trade but is close to retiring.

Although the terms “Israelite,” “Yisrael” and “the Jewish people” are familiar refrains from the pulpit, the State of Israel is rarely mentioned. “Our communities are not affluent enough to take time off work to live in Israel,” explained Rabbi Baruch Yehuda of B’nai Adath Kol Beth Yisroel in Brooklyn, who is also dean of the Israelite Rabbinical Academy. “We do support the State of Israel, however, it is a hard topic to get across to a people who are not recognized by the very state we support, in word and deed.”

Another complication of the “Israelite” label is that it has been adopted, often misleadingly, by other black American groups that endorse Christian theology or, in some cases, that are anti-Semitic. “Not everyone who calls himself a Hebrew Israelite is Jewish,” Funnye said. “The street preachers you hear with all that negativity also say they are Israelites. but [they] have nothing to do with us or with Judaism. Neither do the ‘black Hebrews’ living in Dimona, Israel.”

Although the Hebrew Israelites insist they need no one’s stamp of approval, numerous comments and conversations reveal an underlying concern that vexes them: When will they no longer be invisible to the mainstream denominations of American Jewry, and when will their Jewish identity be honored on their own terms?

Third- and fourth-generation Jews are now common in the Israelite community, but many, including Jewish day school graduates, cite stories of being doubted and “tested” by people who are far less observant and educated than they are. Funnye told of sitting on a flight next to a woman who described herself as a “secular Jew.” She then quizzed him — as if testing his Jewishness — about his holiday observance. “In our community,” he quipped, “a secular Jew is an oxymoron.”

Shlomi Mizrahi, an alumni of Brandeis Hebrew Day School on Long Island, who speaks fluent Hebrew and worked as a translator for Delta Air Lines’ Israel business, attended a Conservative synagogue in Atlanta for two years. When he asked for an aliyah, or call to the Torah, to celebrate his 30th birthday, he was refused, he recalled, because, without conversion papers, the rabbi would not accept that he was a Jew, even though his parents and grandparents were Jews and the yeshiva had enrolled him as a Jew. Instead, Mizrahi celebrated with an aliyah at the black synagogue in Mount Vernon, N.Y., Beth HaTefilah Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation, where his uncle was the rabbi. Mizrahi, now 35, was ordained by the Israelite Rabbinical Academy in 2000, at age 24.

At the Chicago synagogue, congregant Tamar Manasseh’s 15-year old daughter, Avriel, read from the Torah during the Sabbath service. Both Manasseh and her daughter are graduates of a Jewish day school on the city’s South Side. Yet Manasseh recently pulled her son out of this school because she felt he suffered discrimination, which she describes in her self-published book, “Chai-ME.” At the same time, the International Israelite Board of Rabbis has its own boundaries that Manasseh is challenging. Currently, the Israelite Rabbinical Academy does not ordain female rabbis, and Manasseh is eager to be the first.

Sholomo ben Levy, the Israelite Board of Rabbis president, sees lack of acceptance by mainstream Jews as a disappointment. But he believes the emerging awareness of diversity offers an opportunity. Levy, who also serves as spiritual leader of Beth Elohim in Queens, said, “We not only have a diversity of complexion, but a diversity of experiences. In the past, when [mainstream Jews] have reached out to us it was tentatively, wanting us to be more like them instead of asking what we can bring to Judaism that is part of our culture. If we can celebrate the diversity that exists, we will all be more successful.”

Contact Len Lyons at feedback@forward.com


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