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That’s Amar’e! Black Orthodox superstars making outreach to the masses

In a recent HBO special, superstar NBA player and coach Amar’e Stoudemire is seen by millions — not dunking, but davening. He followed that by making headlines in the Jewish world, announcing he’s ready for a shidduch and to remarry.

Not to be outdone, another celebrity — top-selling rapper and producer Nissim Black — last fall released “The Hanukkah Song 2.0”, recorded with Kosha Dills. Black also filmed a music video at the Dead Sea recently to accompany his single, “Adored.”

With these paparazzi-captivating events and others, is there anyone who could possibly be unaware of the presence and influence of Orthodox African American Jews?

Religiosity has been a part of the African American freedom struggle since the first enslaved person set foot in the New World. In 1955, at the start of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the world watched Martin Luther King Jr. kick off the Civil Rights Movement from the pulpit of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in the name of Christianity. Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X were fiery leaders for Black dignity and self-reliance with Islam as a base.

The African American Jewish experience, including from an Orthodox perspective, is no less a part of the spiritual ambition of the Black community. It’s a manifestation of the Black American spiritual experience that started with enslaved people on a plantation and has migrated to synagogues in Jerusalem.

Nissim Black, Amar'e Stoudemire, Zecharya Yishai Levine and Mordechai Ben Avraham sharing a meal

From left: Nissim Black, Amar’e Stoudemire, Zecharya Yishai Levine and Mordechai Ben Avraham share a meal in Jerusalem. Courtesy of Mordechai Ben Avraham

There have been Black Orthodox Jews for as long as the denomination has existed, both in Israel and the Diaspora. Some of these hail from longstanding Torah-observant families in places like Crown Heights. Others are converts from less likely locales like Compton. Though demographers may not yet have quantified it, Stoudemire and Black may be part of a new wave: Black celebrities who have found their way to Orthodox Judaism.

It’s a commitment that may at first seem at odds with the lifestyles of the rich and famous, but the key word is commitment. There’s a Jewish idea that when a person converts to Judaism, and commits to keeping the 613 laws of the Torah, he or she becomes a completely new person. The literal English translation of the Hebrew word for a convert, “ger,” is “stranger.” From a spiritual standpoint, a ger is looked at as a newborn baby. Within the often-insular Orthodox Jewish community, this may put African American Jews by choice in a precarious scenario.

The Orthodox community is based around religious traditions, some dating back thousands of years. So when a ger integrates into a religious Jewish community, they usually take on the customs of their new environment. This is often coupled with a new definition of self through the conversion process. Some may ask why Stoudemire wears a black hat. The answer is it’s a form of expression, but he doesn’t always. (As for myself, I couldn’t find a hat I really liked, so I decided to get a bigger kippah.)

That commitment puts many Orthodox Jews in a position where they lack a sense of self-identity, paralyzing their ability to truly engage in social issues outside of their particular Jewish community. For celebrities, engagement with the masses comes with the territory, and most Black celebrities know it carries a certain amount of responsibility to the Black community.

For African American Jews, that includes speaking up about Jewish life and the beauty of the Torah to the Black communities from which they ethnically originate – among whom there may be some who are susceptible to antisemitic propaganda.

Yet this responsibility doesn’t fall exclusively on the shoulders of the individuals newly entering their Jewish communities. It’s Jewish communities as a whole that must see the value in empowering African American Jews. The Jewish community raises hundreds of millions of dollars on outreach every year. How much money enters the homes of African American Jews from this effort? Here in Israel, there are many Yeshiva students of African American descent becoming rabbis. How many of these Jewish scholars of African American descent will be integrated into the mainstream world of communication within Judaism to the broader world?

Orthodox African American Jews bring cultural relevance to this discussion, and the celebrities among them bring a large audience. Arguably, in recent months, Nissim Black and Amar’e Stoudemire have educated more people on the virtues of Orthodox Judaism through the mainstream media than any outreach organization in the Jewish world.

Not convinced? Wait until TV executives hear about Stoudemire’s impending shidduch. There isn’t a showrunner alive who would pass up that opportunity.

To contact the author, email [email protected].

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