The history of Harlem’s Black synagogues

Words: Sarah Davidson


In December 1925, the Amsterdam News, a Harlem newspaper, announced in bold writing: ‘Negro Jews Win Rent Suit’. A two-storey red brick building at 459 Lenox Avenue (now Malcolm X Boulevard) became the first Black Jewish synagogue in New York City. 

The congregation was led by Rabbi Arnold Ford, most famously known as the musical director of the Universal Negro Improvement Association, a pan-African movement founded by Marcus Garvey in 1917. Ford became renowned for his co-composition of the song ‘Ethiopia thou land of our fathers’, which later became the UNIA’s anthem. It was through the UNIA that Ford met Wentworth Arthur Matthew, who would become Harlem’s most famous rabbi and founder of the Commandment Keepers, one of the oldest and largest Black Jewish congregations. The Commandment Keepers believed that, in Matthew’s own words, the people who Moses led out of Egypt were Black – and therefore that Black people of Jewish faith were bound to the laws of the Old Testament.

The Judaism of these communities, like Garveyism, was rooted in a claim to Ethiopian heritage, calling on a Black past which predated slavery and transcended Jim Crow America. A sense of Ethiopian heritage and pan-Africanism remained through the 1950s. In the minutes of a 1951 meeting at Kohol Beth B’nai Yisroel Synagogue, a small synagogue on Lenox Avenue, it was noted that the congregation had been told by the police that they were obliged to ‘display an American flat 36 x 48 inches’. In defiance, the community decided that they would display an Ethiopian flag alongside the American one. 

The Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, a decade of huge intellectual, social and artistic activity, set the backdrop for the emergence of Black Jewish communities in 20th century New York. The white anthropologist Ruth Landes, who visited the community in Harlem in the 1960s, wrote in the Jewish Journal of Sociology that Matthew’s followers would often compare him to Booker T. Washington, Garvey and Hubert Harrison, all of whom were influential orators and intellectuals in 20s Harlem. 

One such comparison was made by Maude McCleod, a Black Jewish woman and member of Rabbi Matthews’ congregation, who described how Matthew adopted the traditional Harlem street practice of preaching to passers-by from a stepladder. In an interview published in the New York Times Magazine in 1999, McCleod recalled: ‘It was 1927 when I first saw Rabbi Matthew on Lenox Avenue. He was standing on a ladder with a yarmulke on, and he was speaking to a crowd of people. I heard the call. And when I went to the temple on 128th Street I realised I was in the right place. I did not join the Hebrew faith – I returned.’ 

At the same time, only a few blocks downtown, Black Jews’ authenticity was being called into question. Many white religious leaders said that unless Black Jews had been converted by white rabbis, they wouldn’t be recognised by the white Jewish community. These statements were made among a hardening of racial boundaries in the 1920s, and it wasn’t until the 1960s that the Black Jewish community in Harlem received recognition from the wider Jewish population. 

The aftermath of the Second World War brought with it a growing discourse which tied anti-fascism abroad to anti-racism at home. In doing so, it challenged the previous ignorance and hostility displayed by the white Jewish community. Rabbi Block, a white Jew, appealed for greater engagement with ‘the black-skinned Jewish community’, who by then amounted to 7,000-10,0000 people in New York alone. 

In 1964, the same year the Civil Rights Act was passed, Hatzaad Harishon (‘The First Step’), an organisation which aimed to ‘create contact between white and black Jews on a person-to-person basis’, was formed. Through panel discussions, theatre performances and dance groups, Hatzaad Harishon opened up a cultural dialogue between white and Black Jewish communities. Themes and topics were carefully chosen to reflect the movement’s values of integration and interracial understanding. Hatzaad Harishon’s theatre group performed the biblical story of Ruth, for example, which emphasised the power and strength found in difference. On May 16, 1965, the organisation hosted a conversation on ‘black-Jewish identity and inter-dating between white and black Jewish teenagers’, encouraging white and Black Jewish teenagers to express their views and challenging those who had rejected the Black Jewish community in the ’30s. 

But what tensions remained were stoked during the 1968 teachers’ strike in New York, which shut down schools for 36 days. A poem by a fourteen-year old African-American girl was read out and broadcasted on World Broadcast Associated Inc. (WBAI) radio by the presenter Julius Lester, a Black Power activist, who at the time was interviewing various Black and white radicals. The poem included the phrase: ‘You pale faced Jew boy – I wish you were dead’. Antagonisms, fuelled by this and other events, rose again. White Jewish bodies that had supported Hatzaad Harishon, like the New York Federation of Jewish Philanthropies, claimed that the organisation had become ‘more of a Black Power organisation’, and withdrew funding. Hatzaad Harishon folded in 1972. 

The 1970s has often been viewed by historians as the decade in which white and Black Jewish relations in New York fell apart and Black Jewish communities diminished in numbers, but local newsletters and publications by Black Jewish congregations challenge those narratives and show that conversation around Black Jewish identity continued. In a 1985 newsletter, Dr Alufiel Ben Yehuda, a Black Jewish educator, wrote that ‘it is imperative that our children be given the opportunity to learn from an Afro-centric perspective.’ 

Moreover, the global attention paid to a community of Black Jews in Ethiopia – Beta Israel – shifted the global discourse over the authenticity and prominence of Black Judaism. Beta Israel are a group of 20,000-30,000 Ethiopian Jews who identify as descendants of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel – specifically, of the tribe of Dan. The Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel’s acknowledgement of Beta Israel – a group known more widely by its derogatory name ‘Falasha’, meaning ‘stranger’ – in 1975 gave the Black Jewish community in New York a recognition and authenticity for which they had long fought. 

Racial tensions and hostilities continue today. But archives from the last century mean the Black Jewish voices of the time have not been lost, and can help to guide us in forging an inclusive future for Judaism the world over. In a poem written by a young Black Jew, ‘Shlomo’, in 1995, we find a profound voice of pain and hope that transcends the decades: ‘if I had a needle to stick in every eye, I would make everyone blind,’ Shlomo writes. ‘We would see no race nor colour. […] If I had a needle I could correct a lie. Beauty resides within the soul, and not within the eye.’ 

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Sarah Davidson is a History Graduate from the Sidney Sussex College, University of Cambridge, born in Hong Kong and of Tunisian Jewish heritage. She spent a month researching in the archives at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York, which was the source for much of the information in this piece.