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Black Hebrew Israelites

Black Hebrew Israelites (also called Black Hebrews, African Hebrew Israelites, and Hebrew Israelites) are groups of African Americans who believe they are descendants of the ancient Israelites. Black Hebrews adhere in varying degrees to the religious beliefs and practices of mainstream Judaism. They are not recognized as Jews by the greater Jewish community unless they undergo a certified conversion. Many choose to identify as Hebrew Israelites or Black Hebrews rather than as Jews to indicate their claimed historic connections.[1][2][3][4]

Many Black Hebrew groups were founded in the United States during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, from Kansas to New York City, by both Americans and West Indian immigrants.[5] In the mid-1980s, the number of Black Hebrews in the United States was between 25,000 and 40,000.[6] In the 1990s, the Alliance of Black Jews (which is no longer operating) estimated that there were 200,000 African-American Jews; this estimate was based on a 1990 survey conducted by the Council of Jewish Federations.[7] The exact number of Black Hebrews within that surveyed group remains unspecified.


  • Overview 1
  • Groups 2
    • Church of the Living God, the Pillar Ground of Truth for All Nations 2.1
    • Church of God and Saints of Christ 2.2
    • Commandment Keepers 2.3
    • African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem 2.4
  • Allegations of black supremacy and racism 3
  • See also 4
  • Notes 5
  • References 6
  • Further reading 7
  • External links 8


While Black Christians traditionally have identified spiritually with the Children of Israel, they never claimed to be physical descendants of the Israelites.[8] In the late 19th century among some African Americans, an identification with the ancient Hebrews developed into an identification as ancient Hebrews.[5] One of the first groups of Black Hebrews, the Church of God and Saints of Christ, was founded in 1896 in Kansas, but it retained elements of a messianic connection to Jesus.[5] During the following decades, many more Black Hebrew congregations were established, some without any connection to Christianity.

After World War I, for example, Wentworth Arthur Matthew, an immigrant from St. Kitts, founded a Black Hebrew congregation in Harlem, claiming descent from the ancient Israelites. He called it the Commandment Keepers of the Living God.[9] Similar groups selected elements of Judaism and adapted them within a structure similar to that of the Black church.[5] He incorporated it in 1930 and moved the congregation to Brooklyn, where he later founded the Israelite Rabbinical Seminary, where Black Hebrew rabbis have been educated and ordained.

The beliefs and practices of Black Hebrew groups vary considerably. The differences are so great that historian nationalistic and furthest from traditional Judaism.[10]

Black Hebrew organizations have certain common characteristics. Anthropologist James E. Landing, author of Black Judaism, distinguishes the Black Hebrew movement, which he refers to as Black Judaism, from normative Judaism practiced by people who are Black (black Judaism). Significantly, it does not depend on documented lineage to Jewish ancestors, nor to recognized Orthodox or Conservative conversions:

"Black Judaism is ... a form of institutionalized (congregational) religious expression in which black persons identify themselves as Jews, Israelites, or a manner that seems unacceptable to the "whites" of the world's Jewish community, primarily because Jews take issue with the various justifications set forth by Black Jews in establishing this identity. Thus "Black Judaism," as defined here, stands distinctly apart from "black Judaism," or that Judaic expression found among black persons that would be acceptable to the world's Jewish community, such as conversion or birth to a recognized Jewish mother. "Black Judaism" has been a social movement; "black Judaism" has been an isolated social phenomenon."[11]

Landing's definition, and its underlying assumptions about race and normative Judaism, have been criticized.[12] But, it provides a helpful framework for understanding some of the common traits that various Black Hebrew organizations share.


During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, dozens of Black Hebrew organizations were established.[5] In Harlem alone, at least eight such groups were founded between 1919 and 1931.[13] The Church of the Living God, the Pillar Ground of Truth for All Nations is the oldest-known Black Hebrew group[14] and the

  • Black Hebrew Israelites—
  • Black Hebrew Israelite FAQ—Black Apologetics Ministry
  • The Black Hebrews, Jewish Virtual Library

External links

  • Jacob S. Dorman (2013). Chosen People: The Rise of American Black Israelite Religions. Oxford University Press.  
  • Martina Könighofer (2008). The New Ship of Zion: Dynamic Diaspora Dimensions of the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem. LIT Verlag Münster.  
  • Steven Thrasher (March 30, 2011). "Black Hebrew Israelites: New York's Most Obnoxious Prophets".  

Further reading

  • Chireau, Yvonne (2000). "Black Culture and Black Zion: African American Religious Encounters with Judaism, 1790–1930, an Overview". In Yvonne Patricia Chireau,  
  • Gallagher, Eugene V. (2004). The New Religious Movements Experience in America. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press.  
  • Goldschmidt, Henry (2006). Race and Religion Among the Chosen Peoples of Crown Heights. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press.  
  • Isaac, Walter (2006). "Locating African-American Judaism: A Critique of White Normativity". In  
  • Landing, James E. (2002). Black Judaism: Story of an American Movement. Durham, N. C.: Carolina Academic Press.  
  • Michaeli, Ethan (2000). "Another Exodus: The Hebrew Israelites from Chicago to Dimona". In Yvonne Patricia Chireau,  
  • Moses, Wilson Jeremiah (2003). "Chosen Peoples of the Metropolis: Black Muslims, Black Jews, and Others". In  
  • Parfitt, Tudor; Emanuela Trevisan Semi (2002). Judaising Movements: Studies in the Margins of Judaism in Modern Times. New York: Routledge.  
  • Singer, Merrill (2000). "Symbolic Identity Formation in an African American Religious Sect: The Black Hebrew Israelites". In Yvonne Patricia Chireau,  
  • Sundquist, Eric J. (2002). Strangers in the Land: Blacks, Jews, Post-Holocaust America. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.  
  • Wolfson, Bernard J. (2000). "African American Jews: Dispelling Myths, Bridging the Divide". In Yvonne Patricia Chireau,  
  • Wynia, Elly M. (1994). The Church of God and Saints of Christ: The Rise of Black Jews. New York: Routledge.  


  1. ^ Ben-Jochannan, p. 306.
  2. ^ a b c Ben Levy, Sholomo. "The Black Jewish or Hebrew Israelite Community".  
  3. ^ Johannes P. Schade, ed. (2006). "Black Hebrews". Encyclopedia of World Religions. Franklin Park, N.J.: Foreign Media Group.  
  4. ^ Bahrampour, Tara (June 26, 2000). "They're Jewish, With a Gospel Accent".  
  5. ^ a b c d e Chireau, p. 21.
  6. ^ Sundquist, p. 118.
  7. ^ Michael Gelbwasser (1998-04-10). "Organization for black Jews claims 200,000 in U.S.".  
  8. ^ Chireau, p. 18.
  9. ^ Chafets, Zev (2009-04-05). "Obama's Rabbi".  
  10. ^ Tinney, James (December 7, 1973). "Black Jews: A House Divided".  , cited at Chireau, p. 29.
  11. ^ Landing, p. 10, quoted in Walter, p. 520.
  12. ^ Isaac, pp. 512–542.
  13. ^ Parfitt, p. 96.
  14. ^ a b Singer, p. 57.
  15. ^ a b c Hudson, Peter (1999). "Black Jews". In  
  16. ^ a b Moses, p. 537.
  17. ^ a b Shipler, David K. (January 30, 1981). "Israelis Urged To Act Over Black Hebrew Cult".  
  18. ^ a b c d Haas, Danielle (November 15, 2002). "Black Hebrews fight for citizenship in Israel".  
  19. ^ a b "The Hebrew Israelite Community". Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs. September 29, 2006. Retrieved 2008-05-26. 
  20. ^ a b Chireau, pp. 30–31. "The founding dates of the earliest black-Jewish congregations are in dispute. Shapiro notes that F.S. Cherry's Church of God was organized in Tennessee in 1886, but other sources do not confirm this date. Another group, the Moorish Zion Temple, founded in 1899 by a Rabbi Richlieu of Brooklyn, New York, was one of the earliest black Jewish congregations that did not combine Jewish and Christian beliefs, as did the Church of God and the Saints of Christ."
  21. ^ Singer, pp. 57–58.
  22. ^ Fauset, p. 34.
  23. ^ a b Fauset, pp. 36–40.
  24. ^ Fauset, pp. 36–37.
  25. ^ a b Fox, Andrew (September 29, 2005). "Sons of Abraham".  
  26. ^ Wynia, pp. 31–34.
  27. ^ Wynia, n.p.
  28. ^ Greene, p. 42.
  29. ^ "Historical Timeline".  
  30. ^ "Rabbi Jehu August Crowdy, Jr.".  
  31. ^ "Church of God and Saints of Christ". Retrieved 2008-02-09. 
  32. ^ a b Kidd, p. 59.
  33. ^ a b Singer, p. 59.
  34. ^ Gallagher, p. 146.
  35. ^ Chireau, p. 25.
  36. ^ a b Herschthal, Eric (July 6, 2007). "Decline Of A Black Synagogue".  
  37. ^ Parfitt, p. 95.
  38. ^ a b Sundquist, p. 116.
  39. ^ a b Wolfson, p. 48.
  40. ^ "Commandment Keepers Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation". New York Architecture. Retrieved 2008-02-01. 
  41. ^ Ben Levy, Sholomo. "The Destruction of Commandment Keepers, Inc. 1919-2007". International Israelite Board of Rabbis. Retrieved 2008-02-10. 
  42. ^ Goldschmidt, p. 221.
  43. ^ "Israelite Academy". International Israelite Board of Rabbis. Retrieved 2008-02-10. 
  44. ^ a b c d e  
  45. ^ a b c Michaeli, p. 75.
  46. ^ a b "Our Story". The African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem. Retrieved 2008-05-25. 
  47. ^ Michaeli, p. 76.
  48. ^ Michaeli, pp. 73–74.
  49. ^ a b c Michaeli, p. 74.
  50. ^ a b Kaufman, David (April 16, 2006). "Quest for a Homeland Gains a World Stage".  
  51. ^ Alush, Zvi (February 2, 2009). "First Black Hebrew Gets Israeli Citizenship".  
  52. ^ "Israel retreat for Houston".  
  53. ^  
  54. ^ Palti, Michal (May 29, 2003). "Whitney does Dimona".  
  55. ^ a b "'Ready for War'". Intelligence Report.  
  56. ^ Potok, Mark (Winter 2001). "Popularity and Populism". Intelligence Report.  
  57. ^ "Poisoning the Web: African-American Anti-Semitism".  


See also

The Black Hebrew groups characterized as black supremacist by the SPLC include the Nation of Yahweh[56] and the Israelite Church of God in Jesus Christ.[55] Also, the Anti-Defamation League has written that the "12 Tribes of Israel" website, maintained by a Black Hebrew group, promotes black supremacy.[57]

In late 2008, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) described as black supremacist what it called "the extremist fringe of the Hebrew Israelite movement". It wrote that the members of such groups "believe that Jews are devilish impostors and ... openly condemn whites as evil personified, deserving only death or slavery". The SPLC also said that "most Hebrew Israelites are neither explicitly racist nor anti-Semitic and do not advocate violence".[55]

Allegations of black supremacy and racism

The Black Hebrews of Israel have become well known for their gospel choir, which tours throughout Israel and the United States. The group owns restaurants in several Israeli cities.[49] In 2003 the Black Hebrews garnered much public attention when singer Whitney Houston visited them in Dimona.[52][53][54] In 2006, Eddie Butler, a Black Hebrew, was chosen by the Israeli public to represent Israel in the Eurovision Song Contest.[44][50]

In 2009, Elyakim Ben-Israel became the first Black Hebrew to gain Israeli citizenship. The Israeli government said that more Black Hebrews may be granted citizenship.[51]

Some Black Hebrews renounced their American citizenship to try to prevent more deportations. In 1990, Illinois legislators helped negotiate an agreement that resolved the Black Hebrews' legal status in Israel. Members of the group are permitted to work and have access to housing and social services. The Black Hebrews reclaimed their American citizenship and have received aid from the U.S. government, which helped them build a school and additional housing.[49] In 2003 the agreement was revised, and the Black Hebrews were granted permanent resident status in Israel.[19][50]

When the first Black Hebrews arrived in Israel in 1969, they claimed citizenship under the Law of Return, which gives eligible Jews immediate citizenship.[48] But, the Israeli government ruled in 1973 that the group did not qualify for automatic citizenship because they could not prove Jewish descent and had not undergone Orthodox conversion. The Black Hebrews were denied work permits and state benefits. The group accused the Israeli government of racist discrimination.[49] In 1981, a group of American civil rights activists led by Bayard Rustin investigated and concluded that racism was not the cause of the Black Hebrews' situation.[17] No official action was taken to return the Black Hebrews to the United States, but some individual members were deported for working illegally.

The Black Hebrews believe they are descended from members of the Tribe of Judah who were exiled from the Land of Israel after the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in 70 CE.[44][46] The group incorporates elements of African American culture into their interpretation of the Bible.[45] They do not recognize rabbinical Jewish interpretations such as the Talmud.[44] The Black Hebrews observe Shabbat and biblically ordained Jewish holidays such as Yom Kippur and Passover.[47] Men wear tzitzit on their African print shirts, women follow the biblical laws concerning menstruation,[45] and newborn boys are circumcised.[18] In accordance with their interpretation of the Bible, the Black Hebrews follow a strictly vegan diet and wear only natural fabrics.[18][46] Most men have more than one wife, and birth control is not permitted.[44]

Ben Ammi Ben Israel established the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem in Chicago, Illinois, in 1966, at a time of black nationalism and the civil rights movement. In 1969, after a sojourn in Liberia, Ben Ammi and about 30 Hebrew Israelites moved to Israel.[18] Over the next 20 years, nearly 600 more members left the United States for Israel. As of 2006, about 2,500 Hebrew Israelites live in Dimona and two other towns in the Negev region of Israel, where they are widely referred to as Black Hebrews.[44] In addition, there are Hebrew Israelite communities in several major American cities, including Chicago, St. Louis, and Washington, D.C.[45]

African Hebrew Israelites speak to visitors in Dimona.

African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem

Beside the Harlem group, there are eight or ten Commandment Keeper congregations in the New York area, and others throughout North America and in Israel.[42] Since 2000, seven rabbis have graduated from the Israelite Rabbinical Academy founded by Matthew.[43]

Matthew died in 1973, sparking an internal conflict over who would succeed him as head of the Harlem congregation. Shortly before his death Matthew named his grandson, David Matthew Doré, as the new spiritual leader. Doré was 16 years old at the time. In 1975, the synagogue's board elected Rabbi Willie White to be its leader. Rabbi Doré occasionally conducted services at the synagogue until the early 1980s, when White had Doré and some other members locked out of the building. Membership declined throughout the 1990s and by 2004, only a few dozen people belonged to the synagogue. In 2007 the Commandment Keepers sold the building, while various factions among former members sued one another.[36][41]

Matthew established the Ethiopian Hebrew Rabbinical College (later renamed the Israelite Rabbinical Academy) in Brooklyn. He ordained more than 20 rabbis, who went on to lead congregations throughout the United States and the Caribbean.[38][39] He remained the leader of the Commandment Keepers in Harlem, and in 1962 the congregation moved to a landmark building on 123rd Street.[40]

The Commandment Keepers believe they are descendants of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.[37] Matthew taught that "the Black man is a Jew" and "all genuine Jews are Black men",[38] but he valued non-black Jews as those who had preserved Judaism over the centuries.[2] Matthew maintained cordial ties with non-black Jewish leaders in New York and frequently invited them to worship at his synagogue.[39]

Today the Commandment Keepers follow traditional Jewish practice and observe Jewish holidays.[16] Members observe Jewish dietary laws, circumcise newborn boys and celebrate bar mitzvah, and their synagogue has a partition to separate men and women during worship.[36]

Wentworth Arthur Matthew founded the Commandment Keepers Congregation in Harlem in 1919.[2] Matthew was influenced by the non-black Jews he met and by Marcus Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Association. Garvey used the Biblical Jews in exile as a metaphor for black people in North America. One of the accomplishments of Garvey's movement was to strengthen the connection between black Americans and Africa, Ethiopia in particular. When Matthew later learned about the Beta Israel—Ethiopian Jews—he identified with them.[35] But, Israel recognizes the Beta Israel people as being descended from historic Jews by ancestry.

Commandment Keepers

The Church of God and Saints of Christ synthesizes rituals from both Judaism and Christianity. They have adopted rites drawn from both the Old Testament and the New Testament. Its Old Testament observances include use of the Jewish calendar, celebration of Passover, circumcision of infant males, commemoration of the Sabbath on Saturday, and wearing of yarmulkes. Its New Testament rites include baptism (immersion) and footwashing, both of which have Old Testament origins.[32][33]

The Church of God and Saints of Christ describes itself as "the oldest African-American congregation in the United States that adheres to the tenets of Judaism".[20][31] Founded by American William Saunders Crowdy in Kansas in 1896, it teaches that all Jews had been black originally, and that African Americans are descendants of the lost tribes of Israel.[32][33] Members believe that Jesus was neither God nor the son of God, but rather an adherent to Judaism and a prophet. They also consider William Saunders Crowdy, their founder in Kansas, to be a prophet.[34]

[25] As of 2005, it had fifty tabernacles in the United States and dozens in Africa.[30], a great-grandson of William Saunders Crowdy.Rabbi Jehu A. Crowdy, Jr. Since 2001, the Church of God and Saints of Christ has been led by [29] His son, Levi Solomon Plummer, became the church's leader in 1975.[28] The Church of God and Saints of Christ was established in

Former headquarters of the Church of God and Saints of Christ in Washington, D.C. The building is now known as First Tabernacle Beth El and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Church of God and Saints of Christ

The oldest known Black Hebrew organization is the Church of the Living God, the Pillar Ground of Truth for All Nations.[14][20] The group was founded by F. S. Cherry in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in 1886, and later moved to Philadelphia.[21] Theologically, the Church of the Living God mixed elements of Judaism and Christianity, counting the Bible — including the New Testament — and the Talmud as essential scriptures.[22] The rituals of Cherry’s flock incorporated many Jewish practices and prohibitions alongside some Christian traditions.[23] For example, during prayer the men wore skullcaps and congregants faced east. In addition, members of the Church were not permitted to eat pork.[23] Prayers were accompanied by musical instruments and gospel singing.[24] After Cherry's death, members of the church believed he had left temporarily and would reappear soon in spirit to lead the church through his son.[15]

Church of the Living God, the Pillar Ground of Truth for All Nations

[19][18][17] in the late-20th century.Israel are widely known for having moved from the United States, primarily Chicago, to African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem The [16], founded by Wentworth Arthur Matthew in New York, are noted for their adherence to traditional Judaism.Commandment Keepers The [15]

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