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Black Jews, Black Hebraism and Black Zionism
There is Black Hebraism and there are Black Jews. I hesitate about whether to use the term
Black or Afro-American in this connection, but chose Black Jews since this seems to currently be
the preferred term. Black Hebraism with its roots in evangelical Protestantism and Black
Zionism is a fairly widespread and natural phenomenon among American Blacks manifest in the
adoption of certain old testament practices, the use of Hebrew, and an identification with the
Ancient Hebrews. Black Zionism much as with secular Jewish Zionism sees the resolution of
what used to be called the “Negro Question” in creating an autonomous Black American
Homeland. And as with Jewish Zionism it was an open question just where that homeland
would be. Most Black Zionists have opted for Africa, but a few have chosen modern Israel
especially the Chicago origin Black Hebrews who have settled in Dimona (after an earlier effort
in the 1930s in Liberia) and gave become part of the Israeli social fabric.
Black Hebraism has some parallels with the “lost tribes” present around the world and so well
documented by Tudor Parfitt (Judaizing Movements, Routledge and George, 2002; The Lost
Tribes of Israel, Weidenfeld2003; Black Jews in Africa and America, Harvard University Press,
2013)1
But Black Hebraism is not connected with the Judaism of history, and in fact is usually quite
consistent with Christianity. However, quite naturally in the United States Jews and some
people influenced by Black Hebraists have sought each other out and varying affiliations of
greater or lesser depth have been attempted, some of which have been effective. Some Black
groups and even more Black people have become integral parts of the mainstream Jewish
community .
Jacob Dorman in his book, Chosen People: The Rise of American Black Hebrew Religions, Oxford
UP 2013, documents the characteristics of Black Hebraism at some length. He also has an
article, “A Colony in Babylon: Cooperation and Conflict between Black and White Jews in New
York, 1930 to 1964 in ed. Edith Bruder and Tudor Parfitt, Studies in Black Judaism, Cambridge
Scholars Publishing, Newcastle Upon Tyne, UK, 2013; A much more detailed account is
1
contained in James E. Landing, Black Judaism: Story of an American Movement, Carolina
Academic Press, Durham, NC, 2002 has a much more detailed account. Though both of these
looked extensively at Jewish sources they are primarily told from the Black Jewish point of view.
The latter volume demonstrates the extent to which there has been good will, bad will, and
extensive misunderstanding along the way.
These converts have a long history but today almost all sizeable Jewish communities have a few
Black members and the remaining Black Jewish congregations and rabbis connected with the
broader Jewish community structure to some extent.
Evidence of Black Jews
Since their earliest days in the United States Jews and Jewish institutions have had relations
with and sometimes Black members. The pre Civil War Charleston Synagogue had one regular
black attendant mentioned in the press;scattered converts are mentioned as well and various
Black synagogue members are mentioned in the press. As American society has become
somewhat more culturally diverse and integrated the number of Black members and
associations has increased until today there is a sprinkling of Blacks throughout the American
Jewish community.
There are several references to Rufus Jones Perry, perhaps the first Black graduate of New York
University Law School in 1891 who converted in 1912. He was from 1895, Assistant District
Attorney in Brooklyn and involved with Tammany. He was suspended in 1915 in connection
with some alleged issues concerning his father’s will but reinstated in the bar in 1926 and died
in 1932. (C.J. Clay, Emancipation: The Making of a Black Lawyer, 1844-1946, Philadelphia:
University of Pennsylvannia Press, 1973, p. 349 a history of Blacks in the legal profession). His
father had been a prominent Black Baptist preacher and author. His father, Rufus Lewis Perry,
(1834-1895) was the author of a book entitle The Cushites, Or, The Descendants of Ham as
Found in the in the Sacred Scriptures and in the Writings of the Ancient Historians and Poets
from Noah to the Christian Era, 1893 which addressed one of the contentious issues of the time
on Black status.
The son, Rufus James Perry was reported converted by Rev Solomon Scheiner and Rev. L.
Meisels in another source, the latter being a mohel, and on his conversion Perry changed his
name for certain purposes to Raphael, though clearly continued using Rufus in some contexts.
(much of this material is from a website www.americanconverts.org) He published three books
at least – One on the “Situation actualle en Haiti,” another entitled “Practical Anthropology,”
and the third “Man from the Scientific Viewpoint and the Talmudic Conception.” Another
report is that he met with President Wilson on behalf of Black troops. (One of his descendants
has a website with considerable information on him, www.rufusperry. Fmeonline.com) The
Jewish Exponent of June 2, 1917 reports that he was elected to the “Societe Academique
d.Histoire Internaitonal” in recognition of the Haiti book.
I noted a reprint of an item in the Jewish Forward which reported that in December 1933, the
valedictorian of the Talmud Torah at Harlem’s Institutional Synagogue was a Black, and
wondered what happened to her and the background. I consulted the biographies of Herbert –
s. Goldstein, (Aaron I. Reichel, The Maverick Rabbi, Donning: Norfolk Beach, 1984, Goldstein’s
papers are in the Yeshiva University Archives; Rabbi Philip Goodman, and Rabbi Irving Block and
others to be cited below in the Center for Jewish History in New York. 2 I discovered that there
had been a small if not negligible Black membership in that synagogue, and was interested in
what happened to them. My first discovery was that the two phenomenon, Black Hebraism
and Blacks in synagogues in those days were not so unconnected. The father of the
valedictorian, Samuel Valentine, was a leader of the Black Hebrews albeit one who was more
generally affiliated with mainline Jewish organizations. A 1927 Bnai Brith article (B. Z.
Goldberg, “A Negro Bris,” Bnai Brith Magazine 41, 11, August 1927, 465-466) reports on the
circumcision of one of his sons with participation of a considerable number of Jews. The
daughter concerned, who was a NY public school teacher who later served as President of the
predominantly nonBlack Brotherhood Synagogue and several of his descendants appear among
that Synagogues membership.
And to be more up to date, the building in which the leading Black Hebrew Congregation met
for many years was purchased with money raised by nonBlack New York Jews, who staged a
fundraising concert, mostly of leading mainstream Jewish singers but including the Synagogues
cantor. When due to declining membership and factional strife the building was sold, albeit
litigation may still be ongoing it was announced that the remaining members would inter alia
be attending the Old Broadway Synagogue, the one mainline synagogue with a continuing
presence in Harlem since 1911, which I note has a number of Black members. One of the two
factions from the closed Black Jewish synagogue is headed by a young son (and Yeshiva
University Graduate and lawyer) of one of that synagogues long term members.
2
Herbert S. Goldstein was one of the first American educated Orthodox rabbis to come out of
Yeshiva University. After graduating from Columbia College he started at the Jewish
Theological Seminary but soon clashed cclclashed with Mordechai Kaplan and left. He married
the daughter of Harry Fischel, then one of American’s wealthiest Orthodox Jew, who heavily
backed his ventures. In 1917 he founded the Institutional Synagogue in Harlem. This was one
of several contemporary attempts to “hold the youth for Judaism” by having American
educated Rabbis, recreational facilities, and broad social programming – paralleling, for
example, the Jewish Center which was being founded simultaneously. In the 1920s and 1930s
as Jews and Jewish institutions shifted to other parts of New York, the Institutional Synagogue
established a branch on the West Side and handed over administration of the Harlem branch to
his younger associate Goodman. The branch kept functioning at some level till the early 1940s,
when the cessation of financial support from Congressman Sol Bloom a key member and the
loss of rental income from the New York School system forced a default on its mortgage and its
sale. The big banks involved ending up writing off a lot of the debt.
I note in the newsletter of the Old Broadway Synagogue for November 26, 2010 a long obituary
for one of their Black members, Dvorah Womble, who just died at age 90:
“She was born in Winston-Salem, North Carolina and had an African-American and Cherokee
background. Her Jewish background was more mysterious to me but in our context at Old
Broadway this did not seem to matter much. That she believed in G-d and affiliated with
Judaism was beyond a question. Over the years she was sick a few times and if I didn’t see her
we would walk a few blocks to her apartment, where we would find her studying the parasha,
surrounded by her collection of Jewish books.
Through speaking with her in schul and visiting her at home, we learned that she had lived most
of her adult life in New York. She apparently attended the Old Boradway Synagogue in the
1970s, but then moved downtown where she attended the Brotherhood Synagogue.
(www.oldbroadwaysyunagogue. Blogspot.com/search/labd/Winst0N-SALEM, ACCESSED
1.2/2015.)
A broader picture of the population shifts in Harlem and their impact is contained in Jeffrey
Gurock, When Harlem was Jewish, Columbia UP, 2012.
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