Show Me the Way of the Hebrews: The Making of an African American Rabbi

Originally published in Religion Dispatches.

Aronoff reading at torah dedication. Picture by J. Lester Feder

The services I attended at Philadelphia’s Congregation Temple Bethel were loud and joyous, but I felt totally out of place. That was a familiar feeling, of course. My two Jewish parents raised me without any religious education. (My father, a butcher, takes an almost perverse delight in flouting his non-belief with gestures like giving me lard as a Christmas present.) But I was more at ease this morning, because it was not expected that I understand the rituals because I look like a Jew. I was one of the only white people in shul that morning, and it was nice to look as out of place as I usually feel.

Bethel is an African American synagogue founded in the 1950s by a woman known as “Mother” Louise Elizabeth Dailey. Today it has an estimated membership of 500 families.

Their mode of worship looked more Pentecostal to me than Jewish. A praise band played throughout the five-hour service, which was punctuated by frenzied moments in which worshippers would run laps around the pews while some fell into ecstatic fits of weeping. They were dedicating a new Torah scroll, and some readers sounded almost like mullahs chanting the Koran, while others sang with an extravagant Ashkenazi style that I had only seen used by Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer.

I was at Bethel on an assignment for The Washington Post, a cover story for the magazine about a new African American synagogue in DC started in 2008 by Mother Dailey’s grandson, Eli Aronoff. (Aronoff claims no Ashkenazi ancestry despite his surname—his father was from rural South Carolina.) Neither my story nor the new congregation succeeded—the Post axed the story during a shakeup of the magazine’s editorial staff in 2009, and Aronoff’s congregation recently decided to disband after two struggling years. But the experience allowed me to ask what it means to belong to a tradition that I had always been taught was my birthright. Does heritage alone make a Jew a Jew? Religious law? And why are these more important tokens of membership in the community that someone’s personal faith?

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“Doing away with this New Testament nonsense…”

Louise Elizabeth Dailey was the daughter of a Baptist minister in Annapolis, Maryland, who observed some odd customs. He salted chicken after it was slaughtered, for example, and covered mirrors during a period of mourning. When she saw these same customs observed by a Jewish family for whom she worked as a maid after moving to Philadelphia around 1940, she decided this was more than coincidence. “Coincidence,” she was fond of saying, “is just God’s way of being anonymous.”

She began keeping kosher. She adopted a Saturday Sabbath, which ironically got her fired by her Jewish employers when she refused to wash dishes on the holy day. While raising six children, she started hosting a prayer group in her living room. It quickly grew, its ranks swelling with the large numbers of African Americans then pouring into Philadelphia from the South. In 1951, the group formally declared itself the Bethel Holy Commandment Church.

As the name makes obvious, they were not yet a synagogue. Dailey’s daughter, Debra Bowen, became leader of Bethel after her mother’s death in 2001, and she is the official keeper of her legend. Bowen confessed in a rare moment of candor during an interview with a University of Pennsylvania student named Dan Ross, “One thing that was difficult for [Mother] to relinquish in a really quick way was that we worshipped Jesus Christ.” (Dan Ross’s impressive senior thesis is the only in-depth history of the congregation.)

A group of African Americans who thought of themselves as the children of Israel yet who worshipped Jesus Christ—this is not as odd as it may at first sound. Around the turn of the 20th century, some of the children their forefathers’ white masters. The Hebrew bible’s exodus narrative had long made it central to black theology, making Judaism a logical model for crafting a new faith for free people. But Jesus, too, was important in black faith, and most of the Jewish-inspired denominations that sprang up did not renounce him. Instead, they claimed white Jews were imposters to the faith who had misunderstood Christ’s significance. Broadly speaking, these black “messianic” groups held beliefs that resemble elements of Seventh Day Adventism and Jews for Jesus colored by Black Nationalism and the worship practices of the African American church.

In the mid 1950s, Dailey’s reputation as a preacher came to the attention of the “chief apostle” of one of these denominations, the House of God, Inc. The House of God, founded in Washington, DC in 1918 and later headquartered in Kentucky, describes itself as a “Hebrew Pentecostal” denomination. Bishop S. P Rawlings asked Dailey to affiliate with his church and later recruited her for the third-highest position in its national leadership.

Dailey ensured that Bethel would keep its autonomy, but she signed on with the House of God because it gave her a national platform to share her message. Around the time her first grandchild, Eli Aronoff, was born in 1960, Dailey spent several weeks on preaching tours each year. Exactly what she preached in those years is unclear, but it clearly increasingly challenged Christianity. According to one family legend, a group of ministers in South Carolina put a snake in a house where she was staying as a form of lynching.

Increasingly, her beliefs became more and more grounded in the Jewish daily prayer, the Shema: “Hear, o Israel, … the Lord is one.” By the time Aronoff reached bar mitzvah age, Dailey decided the time had come to renounce Jesus. “There was a moment she said, ‘OK, we’re doing away with this New Testament nonsense—we’re not doing that no more,’” he remembers. Bethel voted to break from the House of God, though about a third of the congregation left Bethel, choosing Jesus over Mother. This included her son George, who remains a House of God bishop to this day.

Once Mother Dailey made this leap, she was neither gentle nor quiet. “This ain’t no milk and no eggs,” she warned during a sermon broadcast on the radio. “This is meat! You can’t digest this, honey, you gonna choke to death!” She let loose with a staccato lyricism:

We’ve been taught lies all our lives.
We were taught that we had two gods—we were taught that we had three gods:
God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost.
Hallelujah! HALLELUJAH!
But I heard Satan say:
I’m gonna deceive the people [because] you threw me out of heaven.
I’m gonna exalt my dome above the stars.
And I’m gonna be as the Most High.
I’m gonna make men worship ME
and make them think they’re worshipping YOU!
I know you said besides you there is no other, but I’m gonna give you another god.
I’m gonna tell men they can’t be saved unless you go through this other god!

Dailey used to believe in that “other god,” she told her audience, but the Almighty revealed the truth to her through scripture. “You said in Your word, Israel only gonna be saved … and if you’re not in Israel, you’re not gonna be saved. And there ain’t no Hebrews worshipping Jesus!”

“We know your people were Hebrews”

Just because the Bethelites believed they were Jews did not mean they knew how to practice Jewish rituals—and it certainly did not mean that they were accepted as by those whose ancestors had brought the faith to America from Europe. Neither Dailey nor members of her congregation went before a rabinnical court to convert according to Jewish law. They were not converts, they believed — they asserted that their African ancestors had been Jews before slavery imposed a false religion upon them.

Dailey held up her father’s Judaic customs as evidence of this history, and also pointed to scriptural prophecy: “If you do not observe to fulfill all the words of this Torah,” it is written in Deuteronomy 28, then the “Lord will bring you back to Egypt in ships…. And there, you will seek to be sold to your enemies for slaves and handmaids … [and] serve other deities unknown to you or your forefathers.” The ships were the clincher—why would Jews be carried back to slavery in ships if they were living in the desert? This could only refer to the ships that carried Africans to the New World.

This didn’t wash with the administrations of Jewish schools, which denied Bethelite children admission. Nor was it accepted by dealers of Torahs and other ritual objects, who refused to sell to Bethel. They were even blackballed from buying prayer books.

One person who shared Dailey’s interpretation of history was Morris Shoulson, an Orthodox rabbi who was one of Philadelphia’s best-respected mohels. And it is was through him that Mother Dailey’s lifelong prayer, “God, show me the way of the Hebrews!” was most directly answered.

Performing a circumcision ceremony for a Bethelite family in 1976, Shoulson noticed Eli Aronoff — then an almost painfully skinny teenager — intently watching his every move. He invited Aronoff to come study with him, asking one thing in return. “You must promise me that you will not take what I teach you to [any established] synagogue,” he said. “Take this back to your people so they will know who they are.”

Aronoff remembers Shoulson telling him, “We know your people were Hebrews.” Training the boy was also part of a larger agenda, Aronoff explains. “He wanted to have a conduit, somebody who could go to the [African American] community … [to] educate them about their history and where they come from.”

Shoulson, who died in 1990, was a short, balding man who always had the distracted air of someone trapped in serious concentration. He held classes for students from many different congregations in the row house he converted into a shul by knocking out the walls on the ground floor to create a sanctuary. Aronoff attended classes alongside students from other synagogues around the city, where the rabbi lead informal discussion sessions based each week on a different subject—a ritual’s details, the laws of keeping kosher, the celebration of the High Holy Days.

Shoulson also had Aronoff attend classes at a local Jewish college, and had Aronoff submit to a conversion ceremony in order to be allowed to enroll. “I know who you are,” he told Aronoff, “but the powers that be [don’t].” Aronoff says that it felt strange converting to something he already believed himself to be, but he understood that he was jumping through a hoop in order to achieve a larger goal of getting a Jewish education. “Ultimately, it opened a number of doors for me,” he says.

After completing his studies and receiving his ordination from Shoulson, Aronoff honored his commitment to his teacher by teaching in his grandmother’s congregation for more than 20 years, while earning his living as an accountant. Bethel member Dave McClam, whose mother was among the congregation’s founders, says that Aronoff was “on the cutting edge” of Judaizing their practices as they transformed into a synagogue. “He’s one of the first ones to start with questions about our faith and the Jewish way,” McClam said. “He would go sit in the caucasian setting, and the information he brought back … [provided] clarification” on how to say the prayers, order worship services, and fulfill ritual requirements.

When a group in Washington asked him to leave Bethel and help them build a synagogue, he had no desire to leave. But then he remembered the deal he had made for his training. “I’m willing to help you because I had promised Rabbi Shoulson,” Aronoff told the organizer of the Washington group, Shelliyah Iyomahan. “I will do this even if it comes at some personal sacrifice … if this means that this helps me to fulfill my obligation.”

“This school is for Jewish kids — maybe you can’t read!”

Shelliyah Iyomahan is a solidly built woman who laughs in a way that makes clear she doesn’t tolerate foolishness. She was raised in Brooklyn in a household of Trinidadian Jews, and her husband, Bright, is from a Nigerian community that claims descent from the ancient Israelites.

She set her mind on starting a new congregation after an incident that occurred one morning when she was volunteering in the office of a DC synagogue. There was another African American there, a man also born Jewish, who was answering phones. Someone stuck their head in the office to ask them to come pray—they were short of the ten Jews required to form the minyan. When they joined the group, the leader assumed the black man was a convert, and asked if he had fulfilled all of the process’s legal requirements.

After that incident, she says, “my eyes [were] opened.” Regardless of their devotion to the faith, Jews like her would always be greeted skeptically in DC’s white congregations because of their black skin. Of course, she had also experienced this bias directly—the reception she received when she visited Jewish schools for her children was so hostile that she vowed “never [to] put my children in any Jewish day school in this area, even if it were free.” She remembers, “The looks on their faces [said], ‘You want to enroll your children here?! This school is for Jewish kids—maybe you can’t read!”

Iyomahan and a handful of other black Jews—along with a white woman who was looking for a multicultural setting to raise teach the faith to her Guatemalan-born son—formed a congregation they called Temple Beth Emet, and recruited Aronoff to lead them. They improvised a sanctuary in a conference room of an administrative building of DC’s Sixth and I Synagogue. Sabrina Sojourner, DC’s former shadow representative to the US Congress, volunteered to be the new congregation’s cantor. She had “returned” to Judaism at a major reform synagogue where she felt very much at home, but had felt called to a greater leadership role. In the months before Aronoff moved to the Washington area, Sojourner would start services every Saturday morning at 10:00, often without enough worshipers to form a minyan.

This, sadly, is a large part of the reason Beth Emet proved unsustainable—they never achieved critical mass, and they were strapped for resources because they were launching a small congregation during the recession. But their faith and need for a community lead them to try for two years before giving up.

What a Jew looks like

While working on my story for The Washington Post, I attended services almost every weekend for several months, more time than I have ever spent in synagogue. And I felt more at home in these services than I have ever felt at any other. Lasting two hours or more, so much time was set aside for discussion of scripture and tradition that it felt more like a study group than worship service to me. I didn’t feel expected to know the rituals or the prayers—a good number of Beth Emet’s members were in the middle of the conversion process, and were also learning.

It spoke to my love of history, and my delight in arguing over the meaning of words. But it did not awaken any religious feeling, which part of me hoped it would. The rituals still did not resonate, and the only emotional response prayer elicited was jealousy of those who find such activities so meaningful.

As I was coming to realize this was not my path to Jewish faith, I was reminded that my appearance would always make my Jewishness more accepted than the members of Beth Emet who had worked so hard to build a community to worship. When I arrived early one Shabbat morning, Sojourner was arguing with a young man dressed in a dark suit. He was with a group of orthodox professionals meeting downstairs, and he had tried to abduct Beth Emet’s Torah to use in their services. The minute I walked into the room, he stopped engaging Sojourner assuming I was in charge — because I looked like he expected a Jew to look.

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One comment

  1. Zeric Smith

    Lester, Great to meet you today in Nusaa Dua. I enjoyed this article quite a bit. Good luck on your current project.
    Zeric

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