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. According to its website, it adheres to “biblical Judaism,” but also believes that Jesus—and Crowdy himself—were prophets. 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.