African-American Jews

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African-American Jews are people who are both African-American and Jewish. African-American Jews may be either Jewish from birth or converts to Judaism. Many African-American Jews are of mixed heritage, having both African-American gentile and non-black Jewish ancestors.



18th Century Ritual bath (now dry) at the Tzedek ve-Shalom Synagogue in Paramaribo, Suriname. As part of the conversion process, people would immerse in this bath. Photo by Laura Arnold Leibman, 2008. P1010028 copy.jpg
18th Century Ritual bath (now dry) at the Tzedek ve-Shalom Synagogue in Paramaribo, Suriname. As part of the conversion process, people would immerse in this bath. Photo by Laura Arnold Leibman, 2008.

Jews with African ancestry have lived in the Americas since the colonial era. Before the 1820s, the largest Jewish communities were in the Caribbean, as were the largest communities of Jews with ancestral ties to Africa. [1] Of the Caribbean Jewish communities, Suriname had the most sizable African American Jewish population. European Jews in Suriname converted both people they enslaved and the children of Jewish men and women of color. [2] Incorporation of enslaved people into Judaism was so important that in 1767/68, Dutch Jew Salomon Levy Maduro published Sefer Brit Itschak, which contained the names of seven ritual circumcisers in Suriname along with prayers for converting and circumcising enslaved people. [3] Although initially most Afro-Surinamese people entered Judaism through conversion, by the end of the eighteenth century, many members of the African American Jewish community had been Jews from birth for several generations. [2]

Portrait of a married couple in Suriname (Johannes Ellis and Maria Louisa de Hart) Daguerreotype Suriname 1846.jpg
Portrait of a married couple in Suriname (Johannes Ellis and Maria Louisa de Hart)

By 1759, Afro-Surinamese Jews (sometimes referred to by scholars as "Eurafrican Jews") had formed their own brotherhood called Darhe Jesarim ("Path of the Righteous"). Darhe Jesarim both educated Jews of color and provided a place where Afro-Surinamese Jews could worship without the inequities and distinctions made in Paramaribo's Neveh Shalom and Tzedek ve-Shalom congregations. In 1817, Darhe Jesarim was disbanded and its members were absorbed back into the city's two white-run synagogues. [2] Late eighteenth-century census takers tabulated that 10% of Suriname's Jewish community was non-white. [2] One historian has suggested, however, that by the end of the eighteenth century the majority of Jews in Suriname may have had at least one African ancestor, even if they were considered white at the time. [2] Famous Surinamese artists and figures with Jewish ancestry include Maria Louisa de Hart, Augusta Curiel, and Josef Nassy.

During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries some members of Suriname's community travelled north, and settled in North American cities. For example in 1857, a German-Jewish journalist interviewed several African American women who worshipped at Congregation Shearith Israel in New York who had immigrated from Suriname. [4] Other early African American Jews also came to the United States from Jamaica [4] and Barbados. [5] The portraits of Sarah Brandon Moses and Isaac Lopez Brandon, both born enslaved in Barbados, are the oldest known paintings of Jews with African Ancestry. [5] Caribbean Jews both became members of white-run Jewish synagogues in the United States and helped form early African American synagogues in Harlem in the first part of the twentieth century.

Several historic Jewish congregations in the United States mention early African American worshippers. [6] Lucy Marks (?-1838), who lived with and worked for the Marks family of Philadelphia, was known as a "devout observer of the precepts of Judaism" and sat in the women's section of Mikveh Israel during services. Upon her death, the Marks family successfully petitioned to have her buried in the Spruce Street Cemetery, where today she rests in an unmarked grave next to Haym Salomon. [7] Billy Simmons (?-1860) attended services at Beth Elohim in Charleston, South Carolina, even though its constitution forbid people with African ancestry from being members. [8] [6]

By the first part of the twentieth century, at least eight different African American run religious organizations self-identified as Jewish. Most traced connections either to the Caribbean or Ethiopia. [6] Today African American Jews worship both in predominantly African-American synagogues and predominantly mixed congregations.

North America

The American Jewish community includes Jews with African-American backgrounds. African-American Jews belong to each of the major American Jewish denominationsOrthodox, Conservative, Reform—and the smaller movements as well, such as Reconstructionist or Humanistic.[ citation needed ] Like their other Jewish counterparts, there are also African-American Jewish secularists and African-American Jews who may rarely or never take part in religious practices. [9]

Robin Washington, an American journalist and filmmaker, became one of three founders of the National Conference of Black Jews, later called the Alliance of Black Jews. It was conceived to build bridges among all African-American Jews, who are affiliated with many different groups. Estimates of the number of black Jews in the United States range from 20,000 [10] to 200,000. [11]

There are several predominantly African-American synagogues in the United States, such as Beth Shalom B'nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation, which is a synagogue in Chicago, Illinois. The congregation leader of Beth Shalom is Rabbi Capers Funnye. Its assistant rabbis are Avraham Ben Israel and Joshua V. Salter. [12] The congregation, which has about 200 members, is mostly African American. [13] [14] The congregation was started by Rabbi Horace Hasan from Bombay (now Mumbai), India, in 1918 as the Ethiopian Hebrew Settlement Workers Association, [15] and it was influenced by Wentworth Arthur Matthew's Commandment Keepers. [13] [14]

See also

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  12. "Divine Law or Sexism?". National Public Radio . July 12, 2007. Retrieved April 5, 2009.
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  15. Koppel, Niko (March 16, 2008). "Black Rabbi Reaches Out to Mainstream of His Faith". The New York Times .

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