Small, Offbeat Jewish and Hebrew Sects

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Reconstructionist Judaism was founded in the United States in the early twentieth century by Rabbi Mordecai M. Kaplan (1881–1983). It emphasizes community over ritual obligations and holds Judaism to be not only a religion but also a dynamic "civilization" embracing art, music, literature, culture, and folkways

Reconstructionist Judaism is a very small movement, consisting of only about 1 percent of American Jews. Some observers believe that it is the most liberal branch of Judaism. In some respects, this is true. Reconstructionists, for example, do not believe that the Jews are the chosen people of God, nor do they believe that God has been active in human affairs throughout history. On the other hand, Reconstructionists give more emphasis to Jewish observances than do Reform Jews. [Source:]

According to the New Catholic Encyclopedia: The idea of a "universal Israel" and its refusal to stand by any platform or series of tenets make it broad enough to harbor within its ranks the Reconstructionist Movement. The great concern of Reconstructionism is the survival of the Jewish people; its approach is that of 20th-century pragmatism. In the eyes of Reconstructionists, God is not the supreme being but the process that makes for salvation; to believe is to reckon with life's creative forces as an organic unity and thus give meaning to life; Jewish religious practices are folkways rather than divine demands; and Judaism itself is a civilization of which religion is but a part, however important. [Source: J.M Oesterreicher, New Catholic Encyclopedia, 1960s,]

Paul Mendes-Flohr wrote in the Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices,Initially affiliated with Conservative Judaism, Mordecai M. Kaplan (1881–1983) developed a religious philosophy he called Reconstructionism. Believing that traditional conceptions of God as a supernatural, personal being were hopelessly out-of-date, he argued that fundamental presuppositions of Jewish religious thought must be revised and purged of anachronistic supernaturalism. Reconstructed as a "naturalistic" faith, Judaism would be more attuned both to the modern world and to the evolving spiritual and cultural aspirations of Jews. Judaism was best understood as a civilization, of which religion was but one, albeit central, component. In this respect Kaplan drew inspiration from Zionism, which in advancing its political program understood Jews as principally a nation and culture, to which a person might be affiliated on purely secular terms. [Source: Paul Mendes-Flohr Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices, 2000s,]

Websites and Resources: Virtual Jewish Library ; Judaism101 ;; BBC - Religion: Judaism ; Yivo Institute of Jewish Research ; Jewish History: Jewish History Timeline Jewish History Resource Center ; Center for Jewish History

Jewish Renewal Movement

The Jewish Renewal Movement grew out of the late 1960s counterculture and has sought to incorporate insights from Jewish mysticism with an egalitarian perspective, and without necessarily following the minutiae of Jewish law. [Source: Joshua Shanes, Associate Professor of Jewish Studies, College of Charleston, The Conversation, June 15, 2023]

The term "Jewish Renewal" describes "a set of practices within Judaism that attempt to reinvigorate what it views as a moribund and uninspiring Judaism with mystical, Hasidic, musical and meditative practices drawn from a variety of traditional and untraditional, Jewish and other, sources. In this sense, Jewish Renewal is an approach to Judaism that can be found within segments of any of the Jewish denominations". The term also refers to an emerging Jewish movement, the Jewish Renewal movement, which describes itself as "a worldwide, transdenominational movement grounded in Judaism's prophetic and mystical traditions". The Jewish Renewal movement incorporates social views such as egalitarianism, environmentalism and pacifism. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Jewish Renewal rabbi Barbara Thiede writes:Jewish Renewal will joyfully embrace music, meditation, chant, yoga, and storytelling in the practice of Judaism. Jewish Renewal reads Torah as our deepest challenge and our most precious gift ... Jewish Renewal is about learning the why and not just the how. It's about plumbing the very depths of why so that we can hear our private and godly voices of truth ... Ideas, texts, tradition – Jewish understanding laced together in a sweet web of life so clearly that I could unpack the teaching as easily as I could unzip a boot.[

Humanistic Judaism

According to the BBC: “Humanistic Judaism doesn't proclaim that there is no God, but it does do without God. It sees no evidence for the existence of a supernatural being. Most Humanistic Jews regard the question of God's existence as either meaningless, or irrelevant. It finds no meaning in the worship of God, whether or not God exists. So Humanistic Jews do not pray or refer to God or the supernatural, or use worshipful or prayer-like language. It gives no moral authority to God. The symbol of Humanistic Judaism combines a human being with the ceremonial Jewish candlestand or menorah, to powerful symbolic effect. [Source: BBC, July 24, 2009 |::|]

“Humanistic Judaism is nontheistic and based on two principles: 1) Judaism is more than a religion; it is the culture of the Jewish people; 2) The source of power for solving human problems lies within human beings. So Humanistic Jews regard Judaism as an ethnic culture that was created by the Jewish people and shaped by Jewish experience. It did not fall from heaven, and no supernatural being had anything to do with it. |::|

“Humanistic Jews believe that the human moral code comes from people and from the world in which they live. Humanistic Jews find spiritual satisfaction in secular celebrations of Jewish holidays, study and discussion of Jewish and broader human issues, and action for social justice. A positive world view Although they reject God and the supernatural, Humanistic Jews put a very high value on the place of Hebrew language, Jewish history, culture and the ethics and values of Judaism in their lives. |::|

“Humanistic Judaism views Jewish history as the story of real people and real events. The story of the Jews to be found in the Bible and the Talmud contains kernels of truth overlaid with myth and legend. Modern science, archeology, and biblical criticism are revealing the story of the Jewish experience, a story that continues into our own times. The events of modern times and the literary responses to them are as important as the events and literary responses of ancient times. Theodore Herzl is as significant as Joshua. Golda Meir is as significant as Deborah. |::| “Humanistic Jews celebrate the traditional Jewish festivals, but with the supernatural elements removed. They see these festivals as a way of commemorating the shared history, memories, and culture of the Jewish people, and as a way of sharing togetherness with the Jewish community. Family rituals such as Bar Mitzvahs are a way for a family to restate their values and their togetherness. |::|

“Some of us are atheists, some are agnostics, some are ignostics (think that whether or not God exists is irrelevent), some believe in God (not too many). What is important is that we focus on what we can do, not on prayer. |::|

Black Hebrews

The Hebrew Israelitesm better known as the Black Hebrews are a group who live in a self-contained community in the Negev desert and claim descent from one of the Lost Tribes. Most are black Americans who migrated illegally and are not regarded as Jews. The Israeli government has traditionally not liked them. Black Hebrews make their own clothes (from natural fibers only) and abstain from eating eggs, meat, dairy products, fish, white sugar and white flour.

Officially known as the the "Hebrew Israelite Community", the sect was founded by 39 U.S.-born blacks in 1969 and now has about 2,500 members based in the desolate desert town of Dimona . Before 2003, it members previously had only temporary resident status in Israel. Several sect members were deported as illegal residents in the 1970s, but authorities avoided a large-scale crackdown, citing concern the Jewish state would be accused internationally of racial discrimination. [Source: Reuters July 29, 2003]

According to Associated Press: Around 3,000 Black Hebrews live in remote, hardscrabble towns in southern Israel. The Village of Peace, a cluster of low-slung buildings surrounded by vegetable patches and immaculate gardens in Dimona, is the community’s epicenter. The community runs a school where its students learn Hebrew and Black history as part of their educations. The majority of Village of Peace residents, particularly members of the younger generation that grew up in Israel, speak Hebrew fluently.

On June 1, the community celebrated New World Passover, a holiday marking the exodus from the United States of the Black Hebrews who came to Israel in the 1960s. Families dressed in vibrant patterned outfits gathered in a public park adjacent to the Village of Peace for live music and a vegan soul food cookout. Afterward, the community assembled around a stage for a dance performance and a march celebrating Black Hebrew soldiers serving in the Israeli military to chants of “We are soldiers of our God.”

History of the Black Hebrews

The Black Hebrews first made their way to Israel from the United States in the 1960s. While members do not consider themselves Jewish, they claim an ancestral connection to Israel. According to Associated Press: Over the decades, the Black Hebrews have made gradual inroads into Israeli society. After years of bureaucratic wrangling, about 500 members hold Israeli citizenship, and most of the rest have permanent residency. [Source: Ilan Ben Zion, Associated Press, July 21, 2023]

The African Hebrew Israelites are one of a constellation of Black religious groups in the U.S. that emerged in the late 19th and 20th centuries and encompass a wide spectrum of Christian and Jewish-inspired beliefs. Some fringe Black Hebrew groups in the U.S. hold extremist or antisemitic views, according to civil rights groups ADL and the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The community in Dimona does not espouse such beliefs. André Brooks-Key, an African and African American Studies professor at Claflin University in South Carolina, said these various religious communities share a belief that certain African peoples are descendants of the biblical Israelites and that the transatlantic slave trade was prophesied in the Bible. “Regardless of how they understand Jesus or how they dress or any of these other aspects, that underlying theological point is what binds them together,” Brooks-Key said.

Black Hebrew Leader and Beliefs

According to to Reuters: “Practicing a strict version of kibbutz-style collectivism and Old Testament ethics - including polygamy and veganism - the Hebrew Israelites are not recognized as Jews by Israel's rabbinate. The Hebrew Israelites believe they are descended from one of ancient Israel's 10 lost tribes by way of Africa and the slave routes to America, an account most scholars dismiss as myth.” [Source: Reuters July 29, 2003 ||/]

Ilan Ben Zion of Associated Press wrote: The Black Hebrews believe they are descendants of the biblical tribes of Israel who, after the Roman conquest of Judea in 70 A.D., fled down the Nile and west into the African interior and were ultimately taken as slaves to North America centuries later. They observe an interpretation of biblical laws formulated by their late founder that includes strict veganism, abstention from tobacco and hard alcohol, fasting on the Sabbath, polygamy, and a ban on wearing synthetic fabrics. [Source: Ilan Ben Zion, Associated Press, July 21, 2023]

Ben Ammi Ben-Israel, the group’s Chicago-born spiritual leader, had a vision in 1966 from the angel Gabriel that Black descendants of the Israelites should “return to the Promised Land and establish the Kingdom of God,” according to the community’s website. After a brief stint in Liberia, Ben-Israel and several dozen families of followers arrived in Israel in 1968.

Ben-Israel died in 2014 at age 75 and is revered as a messianic figure, Ahmadiel Ben Yehudah, a community elder and spokesperson. “We’re Judeans by our tribal affiliation,” he said. “There’s a long tradition and continuity of cultural connections that root us here in this land. We didn’t just fall out of the sky.”

'Some Black Hebrews' Granted Permanent Residency in Israel

In 2003, Israel granted permanent resident status to the "Hebrew Israelite Community" after a 34-year struggle for recognition, Israel’s Interior Ministry said. Reuters reported: “About 2,500 Hebrew Israelites based in the desolate desert town of Dimona will now be able to serve in Israel's military and vote in municipal elections. Under Israeli law, permanent residents can usually apply for citizenship after five years. "We have been in talks with the government for years, so the decision is a nice surprise," sect spokeswoman Yaffa Bat-Gavriel said. [Source: Reuters Jul 29, 2003 |]

“Under Israel's law of return, people considered Jews according to rabbinical codes are eligible for immediate citizenship. The law does not cover those born to illegal or temporary residents in Israel. A government initiative in the 1990s to settle the Black Hebrews' residency status lagged under interior ministers from ultra-Orthodox religious parties. But current Interior Minister Avraham Poraz of the secularist Shinui party has vowed to liberalize the country's naturalization policies. |

“The Hebrew Israelites strongly support Zionism. Their musicians entertained Israeli troops during the 1973 Middle East war and represented the country at the 1998 Eurovision song contest. The sect's demand for recognition was bolstered by public sympathy after a Palestinian terrorist shot dead a member who was singing at a bat mitzvah in Hadera in January 2002.” |

black Hebrews

Black Hebrews That Face Deportation

Ilan Ben Zion of Associated Press wrote: For two years, Toveet Israel and dozens of other residents of the Village of Peace have lived in fear.Dimona, a city on the edge of the nation of Israel’s Negev Desert, has been her home for 24 years. Her eight children were born here and know no other country. Now, she and 44 other undocumented members of the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem face deportation. Receiving the order to leave two years ago was a “moment of disbelief” for Israel, 53. “I feel like the government has been merciless to me and my children,” she said. [Source: Ilan Ben Zion, Associated Press, July 21, 2023]

But about 130 have no formal status and now face deportation. Some don’t have foreign passports and say they have spent their entire adult lives in Israel and have nowhere to go. The community’s long fight to secure its status shines a light on Israel’s strict immigration policy, which grants people it considers Jewish automatic citizenship but limits entry to others who don’t fall under its definition.

Shortly after their arrival, the Black Hebrew Israelites’ legal problems began. Israel initially granted them citizenship, but subsequently revoked it after changes in its Law of Return, which grants automatic citizenship to Jews. They remained illegal aliens, some of them stateless after renouncing their American citizenship, until the early 1990s, when they began receiving temporary Israeli residency.

A turning point came in 2002, after a Palestinian gunman killed six people at a bat mitzvah party, including a 32-year-old Black Hebrew singer who had been performing. In response, Israel started granting the community members permanent residency. In 2015, about 130 of them without documentation submitted requests for residency rights, claiming that authorities had reneged on earlier promises to legalize their status.

The Interior Ministry rejected the requests in 2021 and issued deportation orders to 49 people. Four left the country, while the remaining 45 appealed. The rest remain in legal limbo. The ministry’s Population and Immigration Authority said the individuals subject to deportation had never appeared on lists submitted by Black Hebrew leaders and that some had entered Israel recently. “It’s not clear why their first requests (for residency) were only submitted in 2015,” the authority said, or why the community didn’t submit requests on behalf of those individuals.

The community’s deepened integration into Israeli society over the years has made the idea of deportation especially painful. Dozens of young Black Hebrews serve in the Israeli military, and many work for Teva Deli, a vegan food manufacturer. Months have dragged on without a decision from the Israeli authorities, leaving the undocumented Black Hebrews suspended between their homes in the Holy Land and what they see as exile.

Ben Israel, 55, who grew up in Bermuda and moved to Israel from the U.S. in 1991, is slated to be deported with four of his five children. “I won’t walk out of here,” he said. “We come to serve the god of Israel, the god of our forefathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. We are Hebrew Israelites. So why not arm in arm?”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Wikipedia, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2024

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