Just two months after opening its doors on a quiet street in the Ironbound section of Newark, tragedy hit deeply at an African-American synagogue called the Commandment Keepers Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation.
Its 58-year-old rabbi, Zechariah Ben Lewi, was struck by a hit-and-run driver near his home in Jersey City on Sept. 21, a few days after he officiated at Rosh Hashana services. He died six agonizing days later at the Jersey City Medical Center.
“Ironically our 12th anniversary was Sept. 24, three days after he was struck,” said his widow, Zadikim Yisrael Lewi, as she sat at a round table in the synagogue’s social hall with other key members of her religious community.
Within minutes after her husband was hit by a black Toyota sedan, Yisrael Lewi, who goes by the title “rabbinit,” raced to the scene. Police are still hunting for the driver.
“I looked down and saw his sock and his glasses, which at the time I didn’t know belonged to him,” she told NJ Jewish News. “It looked to be a really bad accident.” A few minutes later she received a phone call telling her the victim was her husband. “He expired right before Sukkot,” on Sept. 27, she said sadly.
A short while after he died, Yisrael Lewi telephoned Eric Freedman, the president of Ahavas Sholom in Newark. Prior to opening the Commandment Keepers, she and her husband had been regular worshipers at the 109-year-old Conservative congregation on Newark’s Broadway. She served on its board, as well as on that of the Conservative B’nai Jacob in Jersey City.
Freedman spent the next few hours with her and helped arrange a graveside funeral service for her husband on Sept. 30 at the Ahavas Sholom section of King Solomon Memorial Park in Clifton.
Commandment Keepers traces its roots back to 1919, when a West Indian immigrant, Rabbi Wentworth Arthur Matthew, founded the Black Israelite movement’s flagship congregation in Harlem. According to an article in Tablet, Matthew taught that “black Americans were direct descendants of the Israelites of the Torah — and though many had been severed from the religion because of the transatlantic slave trade and years of Christian indoctrination, he preached, they should return to that faith.”
Zechariah Ben Lewi graduated in 2000 from the Israelite Rabbinical Academy in the Queens neighborhood of St. Albans. In 2000, he became the religious leader of the Commandment Keepers synagogue in Harlem. He opened the new location for Commandment Keepers in Newark in July. Because it is still seeking members, his widow declined to specify how many families have already joined.
In 2011, Ahavas Sholom hosted perhaps the best-known member of the Hebrew Israelite movement, Rabbi Capers Funnye, a cousin to First Lady Michelle Obama. He leads Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation in Chicago.
Ben Lewi’s death brought public attention to a movement that tends to keep a low profile.
While he concedes he “is not an authority,” Freedman told NJJN that the Commandment Keepers community “is Jewish in the truest sense. Jesus is not part of their liturgy. I am not a rabbi or a self-righteous guy. I may not understand completely someone’s lineage or Jewish pedigree, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have one.”
As they sat beside Yisrael Lewi on Oct. 8, several of her husband’s colleagues explained the essence of their religious convictions.
“We practice Judaism,” said Rabbi Eliyahu Ras Yehuda of Brooklyn. “Some of us are Conservative in our practices. Some of us are traditional. But we practice Judaism in the same ways all Jews practice Judaism.”
“We use the same siddur. We have the same Shabbat service. Any Jews, regardless of what their color is, can come into the synagogue and participate with all of the different services. Mainstream Judaism is what we do,” said Rabbi Yeshurun Ben Levi of Queens.
In her congregation, added Yisrael Lewi, “the men and women are separated during services. Everyone keeps kosher.”
Joining the discussion by speakerphone from California was Rabbi Yehuda Ben Lewi. “We are observant,” he said. “Some are more observant than others, but the most apropos term would be ‘observant’ so as not to cast us in a narrow type of group. We are halachically sound. We are Jews to the total degree.”
Not all in the mainstream Jewish denominations, where lineage or supervised conversion are often more significant than actual practice, agree. At one point Funnye underwent a conversion by Conservative rabbis to allay mainstream Jewish uncertainties about the movement.
Ben Lewi said that “many of us come from many generations of this faith. We also have converts from Christianity and Islam,” who passed along the Jewish heritage they claim through oral traditions. “There are some for us who have proof of our Judaism going back two, three, and even seven generations.”
Asked if any of them had been challenged about their Jewish identity, Rabbi Yeshurun Ben Levi said, “My personal experience is no. Wherever I went, I was always accepted, especially when they found out I was a rabbi — they wanted me to do all the work.”
“You can’t offend me because I am who I am,” said Yisrael Lewi. “You can challenge me, but you are only challenging yourself.”
“We have to differentiate between political Judaism and spiritual Judaism,” said Yehuda Ben Lewi. “On the political front, yes, we have a difficult time being accepted. This is nothing new. You look at the Ethiopian Jews in Israel and you look at other Jews who are of dark complexion or black Jews or Jews of color, there is a problem. Judaism is a spiritual type of existence, but unfortunately it has been overlaid with politics.”
Members of Ethiopia’s Jewish community were accepted as Jews under Halacha, or Jewish law, in a 1973 ruling by the late Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, one of Israel’s most revered Orthodox legal authorities — paving the way for their mass immigration to Israel two decades later. More recent controversy has focused on the emigration of Falash Mura, descendants of Ethiopian Jews who were forced to convert to Christianity.
Ben Lewi referred to African Jews kidnaped into slavery in the Americas and other “forced conversions to Christianity or Islam.” He argued that “the Talmud says that those who were forced to convert to another religion should be recognized as Jews and be allowed to return as Jews, no matter which side they recognize their Judaism from…. We are forced because of our experience to look at both the mother’s side and the father’s side. That goes into determining who is a Jew in our community.”
He also conceded that not all in the community follow matrilineal descent, which dictates that someone is Jewish only if he or she is born of a Jewish mother or undergoes a formal conversion. “Our community can see it from both sides,” Ben Lewi said. “We know the nationality comes from the mother’s side, and we know it is a tribal link from the father’s side, but whenever possible, we will recognize the father’s side.”
“I think the majority of us as a people, African-American Jews, we all want the same thing,” said Shalomoh Ben Amsi Halewi, a rabbinical student of the late Rabbi Zechariah Ben Lewi. “This has nothing to do with the complexion of your skin. We are talking about how we conduct ourselves and how we do unto others according to the laws of Torah and the will of Hashem.”
Asked if he had a message for the readers of NJJN, Rabbi Yeshurun Ben Levi said, “When you see others that are not of the same color come around to your synagogue, don’t be afraid. We are coming there for one purpose only: to praise Hashem. That’s what it’s all about. If we happen to be out of our neighborhood or another synagogue may be close to us on Shabbat, we’ll go. Hold your questions back about ‘Are you Jewish?’ We wouldn’t be there if we weren’t Jewish.”