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Hebrew Israelite Synagogue Pleads For Rebuilding Help — From Mainstream Jewry

At B’nai Adath Kol Beth Israel, a Hebrew Israelite congregation in Brooklyn, the rabbis have long doubled as handymen. They’ve fixed plumbing problems and frayed electrical wiring. Thirty years ago, they bought filtration masks and hazmat suits and replaced the asbestos-laden piping in the building.

“We made it work,” said Rabbi Baruch Yehudah, the spiritual leader of B’nai Adath.

Now the community needs help, its leaders say. Their historic synagogue was virtually destroyed a year ago in a fire caused by an allegedly errant contractor. They can’t rebuild without millions of dollars — exactly how many, they don’t even know yet. They haven’t worshipped together as a congregation for months; instead, smaller groups have been attending services at other synagogues, or in people’s homes.

The rabbi wants to rebuild the destroyed synagogue. But there is a complication: As Hebrew Israelites, the B’nai Adath congregation identifies as Jewish and needs the help of the mainstream Jewish world to rebuild and survive. However, many in that world haven’t even heard of Hebrew Israelites, or don’t consider them Jews.

“I recognize that we are not a group that most folks are used to dealing with,” Yehudah, 49, told the Forward. “Therefore, even if there were groups that had capital funding, they might be reluctant to say, ‘Let’s give it to these folks.’ They don’t know.”

The Hebrew Israelite movement is over 100 years old, and began in Harlem. Its membership is almost entirely African American. Its founders taught that black people are the true descendants of the biblical Israelites. In the 1980s, the community split over a resolution called 801A, which held that Judaism is not tied to race. The portion that rejected the resolution has since hewed more closely to Christianity, while the Hebrew Israelite groups that adopted it have tried to embrace mainstream Jewish practice and identity, according to Bruce Haynes, a professor of sociology at the University of California-Davis.

“They were saying, ‘This is not about racial nationalism anymore, this is about being a religious person,’” said Haynes, author of “The Soul of Judaism: Jews of African Descent in America.”

The biggest American Jewish denominations see Jewishness as a function of either ancestry or conversion. Orthodox and Conservative Jews believe someone can be Jewish by having a Jewish mother, or by converting with a rabbi authorized to do so. Reform Jews also believe Jewishness can be passed down through the father.

B’nai Adath, which has about 200 members, is part of the group that now identifies as Jewish, and seeks recognition as a branch of Judaism on par with Ashkenazi, Sephardi and Mizrahi Jewry. They have been in their current building at 1006 Greene Avenue in Bushwick, a 19th century synagogue just off the J/M/Z subway line that was once home to an Orthodox community, since 1967.

A diverse gathering of Israelites celebrates the inauguration of a chief rabbi this August at Bnai Adath Kol Beth Yisrael in Brooklyn, a congregation that amalgamates both rabbinic and cultural approaches. Image by Sam Kestenbaum

When the fire happened, in November of 2017, the congregation was already trying to repair the building. As of April 2014, that process was supposed to cost $4.5 million.

Their GoFundMe page has raised less than $45,000 all year. Because the synagogue had not been able to afford the payments, they had no insurance on the building at the time of the fire. Their lawyer, Susan Zinder, said that the contractor who started the fire also was not insured to practice in Brooklyn.

“It was just a horror,” Hayafah Ruack Yehudah, a member who recently moved to North Carolina, told the Forward in a phone call about the fire.

B’nai Adath’s life as a congregation used to revolve around the building. The members used it every day of the week for services, meetings and meals. In the winter, they ran a regular soup kitchen out of their social hall.

For several months after the fire, the community held services in a chapel at the Union Temple, a Reform synagogue in Brooklyn. After the Union Temple needed the chapel again, B’nai Adath disbanded, and has yet to find another permanent home. Renting space regularly, Yehudah said, is too expensive.

Ruack Yehudah said that the community is committed to rebuilding their own space.

“I don’t feel skeptical that it can be done,” she said. “The time frame of it being done, that’s what I don’t know.”

There are a few possible plans, Yehudah, the rabbi, said. They could sell their land to a developer who would build housing there and give B’nai Adath space in the bottom floors — a strategy used by other synagogues in the city. They could raze the building and try to raise money for a totally new space, or they could try to rebuild the existing structure.

They could also simply sell the building and move. Yehudah said they have received offers between $1 million and $6 million. But that’s out of the question, he said. To leave all that personal and communal history behind, he said, would be too hard.

The congregation still includes members who took out loans on the value of their homes in order to buy the synagogue in the 1960s and 70s. He’s worried that abandoning the building would be an insult to them.

Whether the congregation sells to a developer or tries to rebuild, they need to raise money now, said Zinder, the congregation’s lawyer.

Yet first, the synagogue will need to convince Jews — and leading Jewish philanthropists — that they are Jewish, too.

Rabbi Capers Funnye, leader of a Hebrew Israelite community in Chicago, has made it his mission to unite Hebrew Israelites and connect them to the mainstream Jewish community. He said that his community has been continually overlooked by Jewish institutional philanthropy.

“We talk about diversity, we talk about inclusiveness, we talk about all of these issues in the context of the broader Jewish community, except when it comes to Jews of African descent,” Funnye said. “That’s a non-starter.”

Israelite Rabbis: From left, Rabbi Baruch A. Yehudah, Rabbi Capers Funnye and Rabbi Sholomo Ben Levy, moments before Funnye is formally sworn into his position as chief rabbi, inside B’nai Adath. Image by Sam Kestenbaum

Even the Chicago Jewish community, which Funnye has spent decades trying to connect his congregation to, has not “sufficiently embraced” Funnye’s congregation back, according to Judith Levey, executive director of the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, a not-for-profit that focuses on social justice issues in Chicago.

“My sense is that many people in the Jewish community hold fast to a stereotype of Jews who look a certain way, and whether that is systemic racism or ignorance, the result is the same – Jews of Color are marginalized,” Levey wrote in an email.

In order to make inroads with the New York philanthropic community, the synagogue has reached out to Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, head of the interdenominational New York Board of Rabbis. Potasnik, who had attended services at the synagogue, said he is optimistic about B’nai Adath’s chance for fundraising, and doesn’t anticipate pushback based on the impression that Hebrew Israelites are not Jewish.

“We’re not going to be deterred by some people who may give that as an excuse,” he said.

“My experience has been, those who want to help will help, those who don’t will find excuses not to help,” he added.

Yehudah said that B’nai Adath’s membership is not wealthy, and that many congregants have already given much of what they can afford to help the synagogue pay off an unexpected tax lien they discovered this year. Yehudah is himself a volunteer — his day job is as a manager at a textile firm in New Jersey. The congregation does not have a few large donors who can help them fulfill the 80-20 principle, common in fundraising, wherein 80% of the funding comes from 20% of the membership.

But there are more basic fundraising obstacles that B’nai Adath needs to overcome to even begin searching for support.

For one, they don’t yet have a prospectus, and a plan for how to spend any money they would raise. Zinder said that the community barely has enough money to hire consultants to help them come up with a campaign plan.

But B’nai Adath’s goals may be difficult to attain simply because it is unusual for synagogues to seek building funds from outside their community.

The expectation, from the Reform movement to Chabad, is that congregations raise their own capital. The unaffiliated Los Angeles synagogue Ikar turned heads earlier this year when it announced that it planned to fundraise nationally for its new building.

“In the work we do with synagogues, 99.9% of their funding comes from their membership,” said Peter Heller, a fundraising consultant who has worked with several Reform synagogues on campaigns. “That’s why some synagogues do well and some have a harder time.”

For now, the synagogue is still meeting with Potasnik and going to New York Jewish institutions one-by-one to try and find willing partners for their campaign. In the absence of that, they will find a development partner.

The congregation is “just waiting to see what the board thinks is the best thing to do, and that won’t happen until we exhaust all of the avenues of potential philanthropists,” Yehudah said.

While many annual traditions have fallen through the cracks, the synagogue was able to do something that wasn’t possible last year: their winter coat drive. On the Saturday night before Christmas, stationed near Penn Station in Manhattan, members passed out coats and blankets to the homeless people taking refuge above grates and in the crevices of buildings. A flag on the side of their vans read, “Be Warm, Be Safe, Be Blessed!!!!”

“Even in the despair, my congregation, and I’m so proud of them, have not abandoned the things that they know to be what they must do,” Yehudah said. “You’re still required to do the work of Hashem, in spite of whatever situation you’re going through.”

Correction, 1/2/18 — A previous version of this article stated that B’nai Adath does not have tax exempt status. In fact, the synagogue has tax exempt status as a church, without formal 501(c)3 status, according to their lawyer Susan Zinder.

Ari Feldman is a staff writer at the Forward. Contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @aefeldman

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