One of the suspects identified in Tuesday’s mass shooting in Jersey City, N.J. is believed to be a onetime member of a movement called the Black Hebrew Israelites. The movement, composed of people of color — primarily African-Americans — who believe the biblical Israelites to be their forebears, has existed for over a century.
Black Hebrew Israelites are, of course, distinct from the many members of the mainstream Jewish community, both secular and observant, who are black.
Like mainstream Judaism, Hebrew Israelites have a whole host of denominations. Different members have different beliefs and prayer practices — and some of them boast followers who are rap and basketball stars. Here is some of the Forward’s coverage on the movement.
Sam Kestenbaum, an authority on the community, explained the history and tenets of Black Hebrew Israelites, tracing the movement’s early history in the late 19th Century up to today.
Today, the movement’s chief rabbi, Capers Funnye (a cousin of Michelle Obama), hopes to take the faithinto the mainstream of Judaism with his involvement in B’nai Brith and the broader Jewish community in Chicago and New York.
While many Jews do not acknowledge Hebrew Israelites as coreligionists — and members of that sect at times do not accept Jews, believing themselves to be the true Israelites — lately, parts of the movement have been trying to intensify their connection with mainstream Jewish sects. As Ari Feldman reported in January, following a fire, B’nai Adath Kol Beth Israel, a Hebrew Israelite congregation in Brooklyn, asked Jews from conventional denominations for support in rebuilding.
In recent years, Hebrew Israelites have been entering the broader cultural conversation courtesy of celebrity adherents. Rapper Kendrick Lamar appears to have flirted with the faith, making several references to their doctrine on his album “Damn.” Around the same time, basketball phenom Amar’e Stoudemire announced his intent to move to Israel on his retirement, citing his Hebrew Israelite faith as the reason.
Most Hebrew Israelites are not violent, but there are sects connected to black nationalist and anti-Semitic ideology, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
The SPLC notes that some Black Hebrew Israelites are moved to violence, believing Jews to be “fraudulent.” The groups have been known to target whites, asians, abortion providers and the LGBTQ community. This branch of the movement can be distinguished from its more peaceful iterations, popping up on urban street corners and transit areas, often dressed in purple or black robes and preaching over megaphones._PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture fellow. He can be reached at Grisar@Forward.com._
Who Are The Hebrew Israelites?