Text by Yardena Schwartz. Video produced by Nicola Kean and Yardena Schwartz.
A powerful African drumbeat sprinkled with the shimmering sounds of tambourines pounded through the small room. The melody of a Bob Marley-like voice filled the room as the singer clicked two small wooden sticks in his hands to the rhythm of his words. “When I walk, I walk with love,” he crooned in a mesmerizing Jamaican accent. Every one of the 25 African-American men, women and children in the room sang and danced along with him.
If you closed your eyes, it might seem like an intimate reggae concert. Resisting the urge to dance would be a losing battle. But open your eyes, and an entirely different scene emerges, revealing a world of contrasts.
The congregation sings of a return to Zion, to their promised land of Israel, and praises Yahweh, the ancient name they use for God. All around them are adornments typical of a Jewish synagogue. On one wall hangs a giant map of Israel, and against the opposite wall stands the ark of the Torah, the sacred scrolls of the Old Testament. Punctuating the walls and the podium are Stars of David, a menorah, and depictions of the Ten Commandments. Along with these traditional ornaments are paintings of a black baby Moses, an African Abraham, and a poster of a young, still-black Michael Jackson that reads, “R.I.P. Michael: We will always love you.”
Everyone in the room has dreadlocks, but the head of every boy and man is covered with a kippah, just like the traditional skullcap worn by orthodox Jewish men, only bigger and more colorful. The women wrap their long dreadlocks, some adorned with colorful beads, in scarves reminiscent of those covering the heads of orthodox Jewish women in Brooklyn. The teenage boy playing the drums is named Moshe, Hebrew for Moses, and the name of the Jamaican man leading the spiritual song is Naphtali. Almost everyone in the room has a similar biblical or Hebrew name.
But this is neither a reggae club nor a Jewish synagogue. It is the sanctuary of an Israelite temple named Kol Sh’aireit B’nai Yisrael, which for the past 40 years has stood on the corner of Boston Road and Longfellow Avenue in a dingy camel-colored brick building. Yet few people in the neighborhood know it is there.
“Most people don’t even know what Israelites are,” said 35-year-old Yahkenah Chavis, who has been coming to Kol Sh’aireit since she was six. “And if they do, they think we’re a cult, or the people yelling on the corner of 125th Street or Times Square.” Chavis and her fellow congregants say those street corner proselytizers belong to more radical strands of Israelite culture. Yet while they don’t scream at people on street corners, there is an extreme and controversial undertone running throughout Kol Sh’aireit. The difference is that it resides within the temple walls, where Saturday sermons denounce homosexuality, criticize an imperialistic U.S. government, and blame natural disasters on sinners who temple members believe will be killed on Judgment Day, which they predict will soon arrive.
At first glance, the shabby structure bearing the name “Kol Sh’aireit B’nai Yisrael” seems abandoned, a relic of a time when Jews once lived in this pocket of the Bronx. The small building is tucked away on a corner, nestled between the shadows of the West Farms Square train tracks and the Cross Bronx Expressway. Just across the street from a giant rock where local prostitutes are known to solicit customers, the building is flanked by a massive abandoned garage and an auto body shop. From the outside, the temple looks like it hasn’t been used in years. Yet every Saturday, the cacophony of trains overhead and cars outside competes with the harmony of drums, tambourines and hymns that take over the temple’s sanctuary as the Israelites ring in their holiest day of the week, the Shabbat.
The kosher kitchen and greetings of “Shabbat Shalom” might lead people to think that the members of Kol Sh’aireit are Jewish, but the Israelites vehemently reject that perception. In fact, assuming they are Jewish might elicit an angry response from some temple members. When asked if she was Jewish, one temple member named Yahelya launched into a tirade on how Jews are not true Israelites, as they are.
The leader of the temple, Moreh Kahtriel Ben Yisrael, understands the misconception, as Jewish and Israelite customs are similar. “If you said I was a black Jew, I’d say you’re close to the mark but you haven’t hit the mark,” said Kahtriel, whose legal name is Steven Vanterpool. His adopted last name, Ben Yisrael, means son of Israel in Hebrew. (Many of the temple members have adopted the same last name.) He avoids the term Rabbi because it is associated with Judaism, opting instead for the title of “Moreh,” the Hebrew word for teacher. Like most temple members, Kahtriel refers to his legal name as his slave name, and plans to have it officially changed soon. “As long as we continue to have our slave master’s name, and learn his culture and his ways and know nothing about ourselves,” he said, “then we’re still slaves.” All of the temple members have adopted Hebrew names in order to shed the names they perceive as remnants of slavery. “Do I look like a Vanterpool?” asked Kahtriel on a recent Saturday, before answering his own question: “No. That’s the Dutch name given to my ancestors by a slave master.”
Israelites regard themselves not as members of a religion, but as a nationality, tied to a land, language, culture and heritage. The lives of the temple members are defined by an unwavering belief that they and all black people, not the Jews, are the true children of Israel, descendants of the 10 lost tribes. For the people of Kol Sh’aireit B’nai Yisrael, every day is a fight to reclaim and maintain that history and identity, which they feel was taken from them throughout centuries of slavery and oppression. “The so-called black people, African-Americans, we’ve lost all sense of what our ethnicity is,” said Kahtriel, sitting across from an encyclopedic chart delineating the tribes of Israel. He and his temple members struggle to hold tight to their newfound identity in what they see as a hostile world.
Kol Sh’aireit emerged in 1970 at the height of the Black Nationalism movement and amidst the “white flight,” during which many thousands of Jews left the Bronx for Riverdale, Westchester and other suburbs of New York. The temple’s founder was Yoseph Ben Yisrael, Kahtriel’s father. Yoseph, who died in 2004, opened the temple at a time of great upheaval within New York’s black community. On the heels of Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement, Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam urged African-Americans to question the identity that had been created for them by white America. That call reawakened the Marcus Garvey movement of the 1920s, when black New Yorkers looked to Judaism and Islam as a means of revolting against the Christianity they associated with slavery, according to Jeffrey Gurock, a history professor at Yeshiva University and author of “When Harlem Was Jewish.”
Before Kahtriel was born, Yoseph was a staunch Catholic. Yet when he became active in Black Nationalist circles, he started to question his faith and seek what he felt would be a more authentic sense of self. Until then, recalled Kahtriel, he had been walking around with someone else’s identity forced upon him. So Yoseph went to his priests and asked them, “Why do I have the name Vanterpool? Where did we come from? Why are we just considered black? And why do they want us to think that our history started with slavery?” After growing tired of what he saw as empty responses from the priests — who told him, “You just have to believe,” — he searched for his own answers.
Yoseph started to read the Old Testament, Kahtriel said, to find out “who we are, where we came from, what our history is, and why it was taken away from us.” The story of the Israelites immediately resonated with him. Reading about the exile of the 10 lost tribes of Israel to the four corners of the earth and their subsequent years in slavery led him to realize his true identity as a descendant of the lost tribes of Israel. “My father connected the dots,” said Kahtriel, “and came to the conclusion that the slaves that came here, who were dispersed across the world, were in fact the children of Israel.”
According to Columbia University religion professor Jonathan Schorsch, the author of “Jews and Blacks in the Early Modern World,” many African-Americans look to the Old Testament for a sense of belonging and collective redemption. “It gives a comforting, glorious identity that’s been hidden and suppressed,” he said. “It also makes a lot of sense for African-Americans whose identity was really shattered, destroyed and taken in the course of the Atlantic slave trade.”
So began Yoseph’s quest to awaken his people and let them know that something precious had been taken away from them. In addition to founding Kol Sh’aireit, he also started two Israelite temples in Brooklyn named B’nai Adath and Sh’ma Yisrael. New York City is home to four other Israelite temples, including one more in the Bronx, called Mount Horab Congregation, located on Rev James A Polite Avenue and East 165th Street. Most of Kol Sh’aireit’s 50 members come from the Bronx, while the rest travel from surrounding boroughs. About half of them were born in Jamaica and other Caribbean islands, while the other half come mostly from New York, with a few exceptions from other states.
Although all of the temple members consider themselves to be Israelites from birth, their process of realizing that identity varies. Some were born to parents who, on a mission to find out who they really were, heard about the Israelite community and embraced it. Others were on their own quest for identity and were drawn to the sense of history and the appeal of being chosen that comes with the Israelite narrative. Still others, particularly the older women of the temple, say that they always knew they were Israelites, and that growing up in the Caribbean, they never ate shellfish or pork because something inside them told them it wasn’t right. Jamaican-born Yahelya, 64, became an Israelite 14 years ago after hearing about Kol Sh’aireit through her son, a schoolmate of Kahtriel’s younger brother. Naheirah, Kahtriel’s wife, came to be an Israelite after meeting her husband. Younger temple members, like Joshua, 16, and Moshe, 15, knew they were Israelites all along because of their parents, Chaya and Naphtali Ben Yisrael, who discovered their Israelite heritage well before they had children.
Definitive estimates on the number of Israelites in the United States are hard to come by, as the boundaries between Israelites and black Jews are often blurred, and the Israelite community suffers from obscurity and fragmentation. Statistics that do exist vary widely, from 50,000 to 150,000, according to the late Gary Tobin, who founded the San Francisco-based Institute for Jewish and Community Research. And the number of Israelites living in New York is just a few thousand, said Jeffrey Gurock, the Yeshiva University professor. But if you ask Kahtriel or his congregants, who refer to each other as brothers and sisters, there are really millions of Israelites. According to their beliefs, every black man, woman and child is a descendant of the lost tribes of Israel as long as they have slaves among their ancestors. Kahtriel refers to them as “Israelites in the Diaspora.”
This notion is a highly contentious one, as Judaism is steeped in the belief that the nation of Israel is at its roots, and that Jews are the modern children of Israel. Gurock characterizes the black Israelite claim as a myth like many others surrounding the lost tribes. “Any historian would have to be shown documentation, which simply doesn’t exist,” he says. “It’s an attempt to create a historical narrative for themselves, but I don’t think any reputable historian would give it any credence. I certainly don’t.” Some scholars look at the Israelites’ claims through a less critical lens. According to Zvi Ben-Dor Benite, an Israeli professor of history at New York University and author of “The Ten Lost Tribes: A World History,” the Bible doesn’t speak in racial terms, so it is impossible to know the color of the ancient Israelites. “The question is not whether the argument is true or not,” he said. “It’s how beautiful it is, and it’s pretty beautiful.”
Kahtriel sees the dismissal of Israelite claims as another way to oppress his people, a way of keeping a heavy boot on the neck of the black community. “We’re met with questions that other people aren’t met with,” he said. “If you ask a Chinese man his identity, you understand a lot about it. But when I say I’m an Israelite, there’s a whole series of questions.”
Despite the tension, neither he nor his temple members treat Jews with hostility or resentment. In fact, they welcomed this Jewish reporter into their house of worship with open arms. To them, Jews are followers of a religion based on Israelite customs. They may not be true Israelites, but they are like family, and without them, Israelites couldn’t have retraced their path back to their own roots.
“They’ve maintained those customs, preserving our prayers, our holy days, and our traditions,” says Kahtriel, “so we’re able to look back and see the reflections of ourselves by the Jews maintaining our culture for us.”
As conflicting as their narratives are, the customs of Israelites are not so different from those of Orthodox Jews. The doorways of Kol Sh’aireit B’nai Yisrael are marked with a traditional mezuzah, the small container of prayers found on the doorposts of many Jewish homes, and every temple member keeps kosher, refraining from pork and shellfish. Temple members perform ceremonial circumcisions for newborn sons, celebrate all of the High Holidays, and most can speak and read at least some Hebrew. The women dress with modesty, wearing long sleeves and ankle-length skirts or dresses and covering their hair with scarves. Male and female temple members wear tzitzit, short fringes of cloth tied to the bottom corners of their shirts, a custom adhered to by religious Jewish men. The temple also contains an elaborately decorated Torah, the scriptures of the Old Testament, which is an integral part of their services.
Yet the Shabbat service at Kol Sh’aireit diverges significantly from that of a Jewish synagogue. Similar to Muslim tradition, the temple members remove their shoes before entering the sanctuary and often kneel down with their heads on the ground while praying. The service begins with a unique tradition, as temple members line up behind Kahtriel at the sanctuary doorway and shout “Halleluyah!” in unison at least five times before entering in single file, singing “We’re marching onto Zion, beautiful, beautiful Zion.” Unlike Orthodox Jews, who don’t drive or use electricity on Shabbat, many temple members arrive by car, and Kahtriel commands the service using a microphone and speakers. While the prayers are similar, complete with the frequent “Baruch atah (blessed are you)” recited by Jews, the Israelites profusely praise “Yahweh,” a sacred word for God that is not spoken aloud by Jews. A typical Shabbat meal includes both collard greens, a staple of African-American cuisine, and salmon salad, found at many Jewish synagogues following Shabbat services. The food is served alongside Manischewitz and Welch’s Grape Juice. When services at Kol Sh’aireit end, congregants often hold Hebrew lessons while listening to Israelite rap music with lyrics about the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
An Israelite service is a stew of many cultures, with sometimes strident even disturbing messages. During a recent sermon at Kol Sh’aireit, Kahtriel spoke in a booming, emotional voice about how the Israelites were punished for not obeying Yahweh after they left Egypt, and were scattered to all corners of the earth, made to live in chains and sold as slaves, their identity stolen from them by their slave owners. He preached to a congregation nodding in agreement that they were still in captivity, and that Judgment Day was fast approaching, when the Most High would smite homosexuals, adulterers and other sinners, but redeem the obedient Israelites. “When the day of judgment comes, we’ll be able to walk through the fire that’s going to pierce the earth again, everybody knows its coming.” He insisted that Hurricane Katrina and the earthquake in Haiti were punishing acts of God, and that Israel is at war because the land is occupied by two religions with no rightful claim to it. Several temple members echoed these sentiments in conversations following the service.
Kahtriel acknowledges that his service could seem radical or controversial to an outsider, but he sees no need to defend these beliefs to critics. His eye is on the common struggle of the Israelites, and on his own uphill battle to enlighten people about their Israelite heritage. “It’s not a popular movement,” he said, “because people have seen so many Black Nationalist movements that they’re skeptical of everything.” Just as his father’s epiphany led him on a mission to teach African-Americans about their identity by opening three Israelite temples, Kahtriel strives to continue that mission of uniting the Israelite people. “Imagine someone stealing your identity and you’re walking around in a strange place trying to survive without any connection to go forward,” he said. “That’s the state and condition of black people. We’re recovering from amnesia to find out that a lot has been taken away from us.”
When he’s not leading services at Kol Sh’aireiet Ben Yisrael, Kahtriel works in construction. His current project is at Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan, an irony not lost on the devout Israelite. According to the Torah, Mount Sinai was the mountain in ancient Israel where God delivered the Ten Commandments through Moses thousands of years ago. When Kahtriel first arrived on the job, he met some Israelites from other temples. “One was Gershon, the name of one of Moses’s sons,” he said. “That Shabbat, I told the congregation that at Mt. Sinai I met Moses’s son. They had a laugh.”