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New Joseph Forum no.7 

Ephraimites, Two Houses, Joes, Ten Tribes Teachings
10 July 2009, 18 Tammuz 5769
1. Afro-American Ephraimite Congregations?
Bnei Noach and Ephraimites?
Ephraimite Correspondence with Each Other?


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1. Afro-American Ephraimite Congregations?
Post-Racial Rabbis
Alyssa Stanton and other black rabbis enter the American Jewish mainstream
Jeremy Gillick

One of the first things that six-year-old Alyssa Stanton noticed when her family moved into a predominantly Jewish neighborhood in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, was a rectangular ornament affixed to the doorpost of her new home. Her uncle Edward, a "devout Catholic who went to shul [synagogue] on occasion," explained to her that it was a mezuzah. "He would wear a yarmulke [Jewish head covering] sometimes," she says,"and he knew a lot about a lot of things." A few years later her uncle, who spoke eight languages, gave her a Hebrew grammar book, which she still has.

This fleeting introduction to Judaism set Stanton, the granddaughter of a Baptist minister and daughter of a Pentecostal Christian, on a journey that led her to convert to Judaism 18 years later. Stanton, now 45, recently passed another milestone on her spiritual journey. On June 6 in Cincinnati's historic Plum Street Temple, she was ordained by Hebrew Union College, the Reform rabbinical school, making her the movement's first African-American rabbi and the first African-American woman ordained by a mainstream Jewish denomination.

The path she took to get there was challenging. Her parents divorced when she was 11, and she moved with her mother and siblings to Lakewood, Colorado, 10 miles west of Denver. In Lakewood's largely white schools, she faced discrimination. "When I was 12, I was spit on and called the n-word," she says. "I was chased with sticks one Halloween, and my friends defended me."

There was also her personal search for religion. Her mother is a staunch Christian who played piano at Zion Temple Pentecostal Church, where her sister is still the choir director. But Stanton longed for something else. She once contacted a priest to learn about Catholicism and briefly considered eastern religions and kabbalah. While majoring in psychology at Colorado State University, she attended services at Hillel. By the time she was 24, she was commuting 140 miles to and from Denver each week to study with a Conservative rabbi, and her search was over. "Once I had the questions answered within my own heart, I just knew, and I decided to convert to Judaism," she says. "People ask me if I was born Jewish, and I say, yes, but not to a Jewish womb. I had to make it legal."

She converted in 1987. Her mother and siblings quickly accepted her decision, although, she says, "none are running to the mikvah." But many of her friends and fellow Jews were suspicious. "It was unusual in that I wasn't converting because of marriage but because of spiritual reasons," says Stanton. "My Christian friends thought I'd grown horns and some of my African-American friends thought I had sold out. And the Jewish community wasn't as welcoming as it is today, either. It was a very difficult period."

Last year, Gershom Sizomu was ordained by the Conservative movement's Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles. A member of Uganda's Abayudaya community, he returned home to his country to follow in the footsteps of his father and grandfather as chief rabbi.

But unlike Sizomu, Stanton will not be leaving the country or leading a black congregation. In August, she will assume the pulpit at Congregation Bayt Shalom, a largely white synagogue of about 60 families in Greenville, North Carolina. That she has already lined up a job even in tough economic times is noteworthy, says Brandeis University historian Jonathan Sarna. "Certainly when the first white women were ordained in the 1970s, they had trouble getting jobs." But with Barack Obama's election as president, says Sarna, it is no longer "unimaginable" for someone with black skin to become a rabbi in a mainstream synagogue. "Suddenly, it doesn't shock us that a white congregation in the South would have an African-American rabbi."

Stanton's placement comes on the heels of sweeping changes in American Judaism, which, like America itself, has become more accepting of its minorities. Today, anywhere from 20,000 to 40,000 American Jews are black, according to Be'chol Lashon, a San Francisco-based organization that seeks to grow the Jewish people by drawing Jews of diverse backgrounds into the mainstream. Lewis Gordon, a professor of philosophy who directs Temple University's Center for Afro-Jewish studies, says of Stanton, "I think hers is a glorious step forward for the Jewish community, African-American communities of all backgrounds and in the end, everyone, as humanity attempts to reach out and rise to higher standards."

Stanton may be a new face in the mainstream rabbinate, but black rabbis have a long history in America. To Gordon, the very notion of a "black rabbi" is a nebulous modern distinction, particularly as a deeper understanding of genetics displaces earlier conceptions of race. There are Jews of all stripes, he says, "who are publicly known as white people but who in older times would have been known as 'mulattoes' or in some cases, given today's term, 'biracial.'" Thus, there may "already have been some technically African-American Jewish rabbis."

Most of those identified as "black rabbis" in the past century, however, are spiritual leaders of black Jewish congregations with Christian roots or practices. Many fall under the umbrella of the Hebrew Israelite community, a term that describes blacks who see themselves as the descendants of the ancient Israelites. The best known is Rabbi Capers Funnye, a Chicago-based cousin of First Lady Michelle Obama, who leads one of America's largest black synagogues, Beth Shalom B'nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation. Funnye estimates that there are approximately 50,000 to 60,000 Hebrew Israelites in the world, including the 2,500-strong Black Hebrew community in Dimona, Israel.

The Hebrew Israelite movement arose in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, mainly in the Jim Crow South, out of a desire by African-Americans to find a more authentic identity at a time when they perceived America to be both Christian and white. The movement's theology was influenced by the widespread Protestant belief that Jews would have to resettle the Holy Land before the end-times prophecies could come to fruition. By describing themselves as descendants of the Israelites, explains anthropologist James Landing in his book Black Judaism, "the early black Jews made themselves the Jews that would have to be returned to the Holy Land: therefore an indispensable part of the divine plan."

Many early black Jews practiced hybrid versions of Judaism and Christianity. The Church of God and Saints of Christ, for example, founded by William Saunders Crowdy in 1896 in Kansas, still exists. ...Today, led by a descendant of Crowdy, it has dozens of churches and thousands of adherents across the world, and calls itself "the oldest African-American congregation in the United States that adheres to the tenets of Judaism."

As black Judaism migrated to urban centers like Chicago and New York it became more orthodox, writes Landing, adopting "Jewish cultural practices, rituals, and ceremony, often accompanied with an anti-Christian bias and the exclusion of basic Christian beliefs." The Commandment Keepers, a congregation founded by Wentworth Matthew in Harlem in 1919, became its hub. In 1925, Matthew established the Ethiopian Hebrew Rabbinical College, renamed the Israelite Rabbinical Academy in 1970. The school has ordained 46 rabbis, including Funnye, since its founding.

The self-ordained Matthew saw blacks as the original Jews, but his Judaism nonetheless had more in common with conventional white synagogues than Crowdy's. He retained some unusual beliefs, such as the idea that white Jews are descended from the Khazars, a semi-nomadic Turkic tribe based in the northern Caucasus that is said to have converted en masse to Judaism over a thousand years ago.

[Note the existence of anti-Jewish tendencies that the article seeks to avoid or downplay. This parallels white Christian Identity and some minority fringe elements amongst the Ephraimites. editor]

However, he took several important steps, including the rejection of Jesus. Despite the efforts of his friend Irving Block, a Conservative New York rabbi, Matthew was denied admission to the New York Board of Rabbis and B'nai B'rith, and the community remained separate from the world of white Jewry. Rabbi Sholomo Ben Levy, the current president of the more than half-century-old International Israelite Board of Rabbis, which Funnye says represents perhaps a third of all the Hebrew Israelites, recently wrote that since Matthew's death in 1973, "there has been virtually no dialogue between white and black Jews in America. "

Funnye, who has a commanding presence and a deep, resonant voice, has made it his mission to jumpstart that dialogue. Born to a Methodist family, he flirted briefly with Islam and was initially drawn to Judaism by Chicago Rabbi Robert Devine of the House of Israel Congregation. Turned off by Devine's beliefs that Africans were the real Israelites ...he soon discovered Rabbi Levi Ben Levy of the Israelite Rabbinical Academy...and after five years of study was ordained in 1985.

His initial forays into the American Jewish community were tepidly received. "The most anti-Semitism that I have faced has come from within the Jewish community," he wrote in 2003. Funnye responded by redoubling his efforts, working hard and earnestly to prove his congregation's legitimacy. Like many of those affiliated with the Israelite Rabbinical Academy, there are eight synagogues, seven in the U.S. and one in the Caribbean, he prefers the term "Jew" to "Israelite." Funnye, who describe his congregation as "conservadox," underwent a formal conversion to Judaism in 1985 and requires all of his congregants to do the same.

In April, The New York Times Magazine profiled him, emphasizing his bridge-building prowess and desire to integrate the Hebrew Israelite community into the Jewish mainstream.

While "Christian Judaism" remains common among black Jewish synagogues, some have gradually aligned themselves with the larger American Jewish community. At the same time, that community has begun to embrace diversity in an unprecedented manner.

Worlds away in Philadelphia's middle class African-American West Oak Lane neighborhood is a black-Jewish congregation that has only been headed by women. Indeed, when Hebrew Union College announced that Stanton was to become the world's first female African-American rabbi, Debra Bowen was bemused. The 63-year-old rabbi of Temple Beth-El has been behind the pulpit since 2001. She became rabbi when her predecessor, and mother, passed away. Louise Elizabeth Dailey, the synagogue's founder, had served as its spiritual leader for 50 years.

Born into a Baptist family in Maryland, her father was a minister. Dailey was working as a housekeeper for a Jewish family in Philadelphia when she recognized that she had a deep spiritual, and, she believed, historical, connection to Judaism. She decided to observe the Sabbath on Saturdays and to keep kosher, and soon began holding weekly services in her living room. When the crowd grew too large, the group decided to build a synagogue.

Under Dailey, the congregation wasn't interested in becoming part of the white Jewish world. Back in the 1950s, "people of color who practiced Judaism were painted in a very negative light," says Bowen, who recalls that publishers refused even to send prayer books to the congregation.

Since Bowen took over, Beth-El has deepened its connections to the broader Jewish community. About four years ago, the synagogue was able to order siddurim directly from the publisher for the first time. And earlier this year, the synagogue received its first Torah from Israel, something that it had previously been unable to obtain due to questions about its authenticity. "I feel like the times are changing, that Jews are finally ready to accept us and the fact that Judaism is not monolithic," says Bowen. "There are different ways to practice Judaism. The commonality is that we believe in one God, and there are too few of us to spend time fighting each other."

Bowen believes that because her mother and her ancestors were Jewish, there is no need for her to convert. Like Funnye, she prefers the word "reversion." "We don't use the C-word," she says. "We practice teshuva. You study, you make a declaration that you want to return to your heritage, and then you go to the mikvah. If you are a man, you have a circumcision." Bowen compares conversion to "being adopted. It means that you're a Jew, but not a real Jew because you don't have the DNA," she says.

In addition to the conversion issue, there are those who question whether her ordination is valid. Traditionally, smicha, the transmission of rabbinical authority, was passed from one rabbi to another, following the model of Moses, who brought Joshua before the Israelite community and ordained him. Today, most rabbis receive smicha from rabbinical schools, but it is only recently "that the formal processes of ordination, mimicking what is done among the Christians in their seminaries, have made their way into Judaism," says Temple University's Gordon. Jonathan Sarna of Brandeis points out that "the effort to professionalize the rabbinate was very important, because in the 19th century, there were ,many people who carried the title of rabbi but who neither had the knowledge nor met the standards to be rabbis and who brought all of Judaism into disrepute."

In addition to Bowen, other African-Americans have become rabbis in the traditional way. Rabbi Eli Aronoff, a longtime member of Temple Beth-El who leads Temple Beth Emet, a multicultural and multiracial congregation that holds weekly services at the historic Sixth and I Synagogue in Washington, DC, was ordained by the renowned Orthodox rabbi and mohel, Morris Shoulson, of Philadelphia.

Brit-Am Comment:

In our view the only legitimate Rabbis are Orthodox and they are the only ones qualified to make conversions or otherwise decide what the Law requires. Most (if not all) of the cases mentioned above concern Reform or Conservative branches of Judaism that have no real authority. Nevertheless they do represent a social phenomenon. In many ways the Afro-American "Jewish" experience is parallel to that of the Ephraimite Movement.

2. Bnei Noach and Ephraimites?
From: omar verduzco
Subject: Comment on Marsha's email

Shalom Yair,

If I may I would like to comment on Marsha's email. As a christian I had my DNA tested and found out that we may have Israelite ancestry on my father's side, from the information that I have gathered I found out that my ancestors went from the British Isles to the Basque area of Spain and then to Mexico. Well after this discovery I was left with the question "now what". I listen to Israel National Radio and that's where I heard of the Noahides, so I left Christianity and I am now a Noahide. I am no expert on Tanach, and please forgive me if I'm wrong but I do believe that this will be a vehicle that Hashem will use to bring back the lost ten tribes. So if I may, I would like encourage Marsha to look into the 7 laws of Noah. Again please forgive me Yair and Marsha if I am out of line, I am just trying to be helpful.


Brit-Am Comment:

We are not sure what you meant by Israelite ancestry determined by DNA.
Perhaps you found similarities with the DNA of Jewish families?
This may indeed be evidence of ancestral connection.

Most Jewish DNA in Spain is that of Marranos and the most typical Marrano feature is an R1b type similar to that found amongst Gentiles in Britain and amongst the Irish.
We posted the e-mail of Omar as an exception, to remind everyone that the Bnei Noach Movement exists and that frequently Bnei Noach also hold opinions concerning their ancestry similar to those of the Brit-Am Ten Tribes Movement and Ephraimites.
There is a definite overlap.
Personally we do not see Bnei Noach as a solution though for some it may provide an answer. The Brit-Am Ten Tribes Movement seeks to emphasize the fact of Israelite ancestry and ultimate reconciliation between Judah and Joseph. Bnei Noach on the other hand appears to be designed for gentiles in general.

We hope not to hold further discussion on this matter since it involves religious and theological concepts that we wish to avoid.

3. Ephraimite Correspondence with Each Other?
From: Gayle Chatterton

Re:NJF-5 response to K Lost Israelites still feeling lost.  I feel the same way however I have no family members who see the truth re Lost 10 tribes.  How can I communicate with K?  Perhaps thru email support we can have some fellowship.
Shalom Gayle

Brit-Am Comment:

We began the feature:
Brit-Am International
It was hoped that this would provide a starting point for those Brit-Am subscribers who wished to get to know each other to do so.
Unfortunately it has not taken off.
Perhaps in the future it will do so?
Perhaps something else is needed?
We do not post the e-mail addresses of our correspondents in most cases due to certain incidents and repeated requests not to do so.


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