In 1893, William Crowdy of Lawrence, Kansas, had visions which told him that Christianity was not pleasing to God because Christians were slavers. He therefore concluded that the time had come to return to Judaism Subsequently he founded a movement called “Church of God and Saints of Christ” which nevertheless claimed to be Jewish on the grounds that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah (Moshiach means smeared, as does christ, as does anointed).
Crowdy, himself of African origin, taught that Afro-Americans were “the lost tribes of Israel”. Mormons, or followers of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, claim that the native Americans are “the lost tribes of Israel”.
Crowdy eventually moved to Belleville, Virginia, where he established the headquarters of his new faith. Shortly thereafter, a schism developed within the Black Jewish community, so that some moved their headquarters to Cleveland, Ohio. While Black Jews continue to embrace some Christian practices, they observe the Shabbat on Saturday, observe Jewish Holy Days and in some instances learned Yiddish.
In 1900, Warren Robinson founded the Temple of the Gospel of the Kingdom in Virginia, which practices numerous Jewish rituals. Thereafter, F.S. Cherry founded “The Church of God” in Philadelphia. These groups considered the Hebrew Bible and the Talmud their essential scriptures. They also engaged in a number of Jewish rituals.
The largest of these movements is the Commandment Keepers Congregation of the Living God in New York City. It was founded by Rabbi Wentworth A. Matthew. Matthew believed that his followers were descendants of the Ethiopian Jews and that therefore the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon are their ancestors. Matthew also taught his followers that the rule of the white man was coming to an end and that black Jews would rule soon.
The Black Jews use the Hebrew language and observe numerous Jewish practices. Matthew at one time taught “Kabbalah”, which had a good deal to do with folk beliefs among Afro-Americans and was somewhat related to the Jewish mystical tradition.
There is also a group called Yahweh ben Yahweh This group and others like it are attracted to Judaism because it emphasizes the advance of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt to freedom, as celebrated on Pesach.
In addition to these American developments there are also the Jews of Ethiopia, called Falashas. These, and some American Black Jews, have come to Israel only to be greeted by the belief that they are not Jews because they do not have, or cannot prove, that they have a Jewish mother. Therefore, it was demanded in Israel that these immigrants undergo conversion to Judaism so as to take advantage of Israel’s Law of Return.
The lesson here is that Judaism is a religion, that we are not a race, and that anyone may become Jewish if he is willing and sincere. There are approximately 40,000 Black Jews in the United States, including the members of the Church of Black Hebrews on Leopold Street in downtown Rochester.