by Steve Kramer
August 22, 2007
On our recent American visit, we had the pleasure of attending the wedding of the daughter of our dear friends, the Braunsteins. Lauren, an educator who received her Master’s degree a few years ago, had met her husband Walter on JDate [online dating service catering to Jews]. Walter Isaac, is a Jewish man completing his doctorate at the Center for Afro-Jewish Studies of Temple University. What’s a bit unusual is that Walter is a black Jew himself. Coming from Israel, we’re quite familiar with black Jews, now that Israel’s population includes more than 100,000 Jewish Ethiopians. But "black Jews in America" is another story. I decided to look into the subject, starting with Walter himself.
I did a web search on Walter and instantly found his name on the newvoices.org site in an article by Avi Alpert, a Columbia University student of Cultural Anthropology. Describing Walter’s work, Alpert wrote: "Jews, like Catholics and Protestants, were no better or worse than most during the era of slavery. And like those of other religions, Jewish slave masters passed their religion onto their slaves, creating what Walter Isaac, a doctoral student at Temple University calls ’African-American Judaism.’" (This confirmed what we had learned from our tour guide in Charleston, SC, that about a third of the Jews there owned slaves, the same percentage as non-Jews.)
Mr. Alpert describes Walter’s desire to get the facts straight about African-American Jews, and paraphrased his findings. Starting with the Diaspora in 70 CE, many Jews left the Land of Israel and were scattered around the world, including North, Central and West Africa. While some remained in Africa, others were captured and eventually sold in America. There were also "mulatto-Jews", fathered by Jewish slave owners. Many 19th-century American Jews were involved with black Jews. But European Jewish immigrants who arrived later in America "... had no conception of the entire phenomenon. They dismissed the communities out of hand, partially out of confusion, and partially out of a deep desire to pass as part of the white American mainstream."
Walter’s frustration with "white" Jews’ ignorance of African-American Judaism is understandable. Some researchers have estimated that there are about 100,000 black Jews in America, out of a total of approximately 500,000 non-white Jews. (Every Tongue: The Racial and Ethnic Diversity of the Jewish People by Diane Tobin, Gary Tobin and Scott Rubin) However, it should be noted that many Jews are ignorant, not dismissive, of non-white Jews, and know only about the Ethiopian Jews who immigrated to Israel.
Given these numbers, it’s obvious that there are bona-fide Jews who happen to be black or of other races. There are, however, other groups which have only tenuous links with Judaism, complicating the subject. On the Wikipedia site, under Black Jews, there is reference to sects like the Black Hebrews, who claim descent from the Israelites of Biblical times. Originating in Chicago, the Black Hebrews followed their charismatic leader, Ben Ammi Ben Israel, to Israel in 1969 on tourist visas - and never left. They remain in several desert towns, augmented by other members of the sect who also stayed in Israel illegally. Recently, though Black Hebrews are not formally considered to be Jewish and have many differing customs, their now-large group living in Israel has been granted Permanent Resident status.
Also mentioned in Wikipedia, are African-American religious groups started in the late 1800s, some of which took on the trappings of Judaism but retained their Christian roots. Their purpose in calling themselves Hebrews or Israelites was to reject the institutions of their white oppressors, including formal Christianity. The first of these was the Church of God and Saints of Christ, founded in 1896 by William Saundes Crowdy.
On the website blackjews.org I found a wealth of information. Beth Elohim is an example of a black congregation, one of several in New York and Philadelphia, who consider themselves genuine Jews, despite their lack of recognition by the white Jewish establishment. They admit that they cannot definitively define themselves as Jews by matrilineal descent, which would be proof enough for the most Orthodox Jew. But they consider themselves among the "Lost Tribes" who have returned to Judaism, similar to the Ethiopian Jews who have been welcomed in Israel.
An excerpt from the blackjews.org site: "Chief Rabbi Wentworth Arthur Matthew (1892-1973) believed that although the "original Jews" were black people, white Jews had kept and preserved Judaism over the centuries. Since we, black Jews, were just ’returning’ to Judaism it was necessary for us to look to white Jews on certain matters - particularly on post-biblical and rabbinic holidays... [but Matthew felt] he had the right to introduce some African, Caribbean, and American traditions into his community. Of course, his right to do this was often challenged, sometimes by Jews who had ’Europeanized’ Judaism in the past or who were ’Americanizing’ Judaism in the present. Rabbi Matthew was constantly aware of apparent double standards within Judaism. After decades of trying [and failing] to find common ground with white Jews ... Rabbi Matthew concluded that black Jews would never be fully accepted by white Jews and certainly not if they insisted on maintaining a black identity and independent congregations. Since his death in 1973, there has been very little dialog between white and black Jews in America."
On the site: religiousmovements.lib.virginia.edu/nrms/blackjews I found more information about Crowdy, including the fact that a synagogue following his beliefs exists today in Bellevue, Virginia. Other black religious leaders are mentioned, including Rabbi Matthew. The site gives the quaint, original name of Matthew’s congregation: Commandment Keepers Congregation of the Living God, which is the forerunner of Beth Elohim.
More fascinating information was found at religioustolerance.org/bhi. BHI stands for Black Hebrew Israelites. In line with Walter Isaac’s and others’ research, the BHI claim they are refugees of the Roman-Jewish war who fled in 70 CE to the interior of West Africa, sojourning there some 1,500 years. Their ancestors were sold into slavery and transported to the Caribbean islands and America in the early 1600s. They assert that the Negroes and Indians of North America, Central America, South America and the Caribbean are all descended from the twelve Israelite tribes. Furthermore, the BHI claim to be more authentically Jewish than today’s Caucasian Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews.
There is no doubt that Walter Isaac has found a fertile field for study. With the emphasis on ethnic studies in America’s colleges and universities, there will probably be many students who are enlightened about their possible Jewish heritage. Maybe there are another million immigrants who will come to Israel en masse like those from the Former Soviet Union did in the 1990s. Who knows?