This week, basketball star Amar’e Stoudemire ended a celebrated 14-year career with the NBA. The six-time All-Star spent most of his career with the Phoenix Suns and the New York Knicks, before finishing with the Dallas Mavericks and the Miami Heat.
Now he’s moving on and up — to Jerusalem. Jews who move to Israel commonly refer to the move as “ascending” to the Holy Land. And like many of them, Stoudemire’s move is at least partly a spiritual journey.
“The Scripture speaks about Jerusalem as a holy place, and I can feel that whenever I’m in the city,” Stoudemire wrote in a farewell note. “My whole journey with reuniting with the Holy Land has always been important,” he added at a press conference.
That “journey” has fascinated, and at times bewildered, some American Jews and Israelis. Stoudemire visited Israel in 2010 to “explore his Hebrew roots” and has visited many times since, even applying for Israeli citizenship. His affinity for Israel prompted a flurry of media attention — was he Jewish? Some mainstream outlets reported then — and some continue to erroneously report — that Stoudemire converted or had a Jewish mother.
But Stoudemire is no Jew, convert or otherwise.
Instead, he is a Hebrew Israelite. He views the Torah as an ancestral record of African Americans, and sees the land of Israel as part of his heritage. Announcing his news on Twitter, Stoudemire wrote: “The children of Israel, is coming back to Israel!! Next Chapter.”
The children of Israel, is coming back to Israel !! Next Chapter. ?? ?? @jerusalembaskethttps://t.co/oyTeYtjUdf— Amar’e Stoudemire (@Amareisreal) August 1, 2016
To be sure, Stoudemire’s decision is also about the game.
“I’m looking forward to playing for Hapoel Jerusalem and helping the team compete for titles,” Stoudemire said in a press conference, calling Israel “a country I have grown to love.”
The Hapoel Jerusalem team is on the rise. They won the Israeli championship in 2015 and will play in the EuroCup this year. Acquiring a player of Stoudemire’s quality as a player is a boon to the team and the majority owner said he was “thrilled.”
Stoudemire could not be reached for comment. But he has affirmed his Hebrew Israelite beliefs in many public comments, peppers his social media with Hebrew Israelite references, and was baptized in a Messianic Hebrew Israelite church in Chicago.
“If your ancestors were brought to America, or any other part of the world by slave ship, you are from the ancient tribe of the Hebrew Israelites,” Stoudemire said in a February YouTube video.
“This is black history,” said Stoudemire, “this is true black history.”
Hebrew Israelites are people of color, mostly African Americans, who proclaim ancestral ties to the biblical Israelites. The century-old movement is sprawling and diverse. Some black Israelite groups, often called “camps,” read the New Testament; others only observe Torah. Some more extreme Israelite camps view themselves alone as the “true Israelites” and other white Jews as usurpers; other communities have sought to build bridges to mainstream Jewish establishments.
Stoudemire’s wife reportedly has family connections to the African Hebrew Israelites of Dimona, commonly known as the Black Hebrews. He even executive produced a 2014 documentary about that high-profile Hebrew Israelite group in Dimona, called “The Village of Peace.”
But Stoudemire’s chief Hebrew Israelite affiliation is with Israel of God, a Chicago-based Messianic Hebrew Israelite group with 23 outposts accross the country (and one in Zimbabwe). The group’s founder and leader Pastor Henry Buie baptized Stoudemire, along with his wife and mother, in 2013.
“He was transformed by it,” said Buie, speaking from the organization’s headquarters. “He is really, really trying to keep the law.”
The laws observed by Buie’s community include observance of the High Holidays, the Saturday Sabbath and recognition of Jesus as the Messiah. The Israel of God churches are not formally linked to other Hebrew Israelite groups and were founded by Buie in 1975. “It started in my basement in 1975. We’ve been in business ever since.”
According to Buie, Stoudemire discovered one of the Israelite churches in Memphis through a friend of his agent’s in 2013. “One of his boyhood friends introduced him to my branch [in Memphis], he went, and it grabbed him.”
Buie said that when Stoudemire met later that year, the NBA star expressed interest in converting to Judaism. “He was interested in conversion, I guess, to Judaism, which I have an issue with,” said Buie.
“You should not have to convert to something that you were born to,” Buie recalled telling Stoudemire. Instead, Buie baptized Stoudemire “in the name of Jesus” and welcomed him to his flock. Buie and Stoudemire still speak on the phone and study scripture together, and Stoudemire visits Israel of God when he is in Chicago.
Stoudemire and his pastor even released a special video for black history month, where the two delivered a message on Hebrew Israelite beliefs.
And in recent years Stoudemire has amplified his Hebrew Israelite messaging on social media. In a video from 2016, shared widely online, Stoudemire said the African American community was being attacked spiritually and psychologically.
“We are suffering from a serious identity crisis,” he said. “Who are we, people?”
Stoudemire then quoted Deuteronomy 28, an important chapter for Hebrew Israelites of all stripes, and is read as proof that African Americans are descended from the Israelites of the bible but were “scattered among all people” and made to “serve other gods.”
In another Instagram post, Stoudemire wrote: “Our forefathers (Hebrews) started in Jerusalem.” The post was tagged #NoConvert and #IWasRaisedThisWay. “I’m not Jew-ish,” Stoudemire wrote in another post.
Stoudemire also posted an image of himself on Instagram, wearing a piece of jewelry modeled on the the priestly Israelite breastplate, which was given to him as a wedding gift from his wife.
“One thing this represents is world peace,” Stoudemire explained earlier to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “That means to have shalom, to have peace among all people. That’s the proper way to live. It keeps you humble. It represents the 12 tribes. We’re all related.”
Bouie supports Stoudemire’s move to Israel and said he urged Stoudemire to keep the Church of Israel faith. “The way of God is the way of God everywhere,” Buie said. “He’s just another brother in the Israel of God.”
Sam Kestenbaum is a contributing editor and former staff writer for the Forward. Before this, he worked for The New York Times and newsrooms in Sana, Ramallah and Beijing. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @skestenbaum and on Instagram at @skestenbaum.