African Hebrew Israelites

American black community finds spiritual home in the Negev.

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Community services include a general store, guest house, health spa, dance studio, communal dining area and sewing center, all staffed and maintained by community members. They produce a line of soy and vegan food products that are marketed throughout Israel and operate a global chain of vegan restaurants in cities such as Atlanta, Chicago, Washington DC, St. Louis, and Los Angeles, as well as Acre and Cape Coast (Ghana).

Spiritual and Social Life

Some have mistakenly reported that the African Hebrew Israelites claim to be descendents of the 10 lost tribes. The community actually considers itself the descendants of the tribe of Judah, as they spiritually identify with Judah's role as the "gatherer" of the other tribes. (King David was from the tribe of Judah.) The community's vision invokes Israel's prophetic mandate to be a "light unto the nations." The Hebrews take this charge seriously, incorporating a respect for what they see as the "sacred Truth" into every aspect of their culture.

The Hebrews maintain a firm distinction between religion on the one hand, and spirituality on the other. The former is frowned upon, and seen as the root of many evils in the world today. "The true worship of God is an entire way of life, a continuous action, from the meal you eat in the morning, to the job you work on," wrote Ben Ammi in God the Black Man and Truth. "It encompasses your every deed and thought pattern."

The Holy Council--12 men known as princes, chaired by Ben Ammi--constitutes the group's spiritual leadership. Twelve ministers oversee the daily affairs and operations of the community. A third tier of governance, Crowned Brothers and Sisters, oversees the daily affairs of the adult community. The community's vibrant cultural dress--all bordered with fringes and "cords of blue", like a tallit--is unmistakable.

Polygyny, the practice of having more than one wife at a time, was practiced among Hebrew Israelites until 1990. The community defended this practice because it accorded with biblical tradition and also because of the community's unique demographic conditions. Significantly more women traveled to Israel in the first wave of aliyah, and the community valued marriage and companionship, even if it meant one man having multiple wives.

In addition to keeping the Holy Days prescribed in the Bible, the Hebrews have incorporated a New World Passover into their calendar, which commemorates their exodus from the United States in 1967. Each May, hundreds of international guests join in two full days of feasting, music and family-oriented fun. Shavuot (Feast of Weeks) observances feature the annual "Dance for the Land" featuring an elaborate display of sound and motion celebrating their joy at being back in their ancestral land.

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John L. Jackson Jr.

John L. Jackson, Jr. is the Richard Perry University Associate Professor of Communication and Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. He is an anthropologist and filmmaker currently working on a research project about global black/African Hebrewism.

Ahmadiel Ben Yehuda is a spokesperson and historian for the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem. Born and raised in Washington, DC, he has lived in Dimona since 1978. He is also executive director of the African/Edenic Heritage Museum's "Exploring the African Presence in the Promised Land," an exhibition documenting Hebrewisms and other connections of Africans to Israel.