It’s been a decade since the Black Jews called Harlem their home. Where there are now apartment buildings and empty lots, vibrant synagogues once preached the doctrine that blacks in America are the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
According to Roberta Gold, a visiting assistant professor of history and American studies at Fordham University, there were at least four different Black Jewish sects that started in Harlem in the early twentieth century. Rabbi Arnold Ford started Beth Banai Abraham at 459 Lennox avenue—a lot today occupied by a dry-cleaners. Rabbi Mordecai Herman founded the Moorish Zionist Temple in 1921, and the Ever Live sect may have begun as early as 1917, under the leadership of Elder W. Robinson. But the Commandment Keepers of 1 West 123 street (or as some records have it, 31 Mount Morris Park), founded by Wentworth Arthur Matthew, were by far the most prominent Black Jewish sect. They have endured as a lasting movement, with affiliated synagogues in Newark, Brooklyn, the Bronx, Jamaica, Philadelphia, and Chicago.
The Commandment Keepers keep a low profile, but to their members they are community.
David Cobb grew up attending Congregation Beth Shalom, one of the Commandment Keepers’ sister synagogues in Brooklyn. “My Abba was the president of the congregation for a number of years, and he was well loved there,” Cobb told me via Facebook chat. Abba is a Hebrew term for ‘father.’ “[This was] in the middle of Bed-Stuy, close to the Marcy projects, to give you a visual.” Cobb lives in Denver, but he still thinks fondly of his years as a congregant at Beth Shalom. “There’s something special about praying together,” he said.
Who are the Black Jews?
For many Harlem residents, the Black Jews have faded from memory. A group of middle-aged women relaxing in Marcus Garvey Park drew a blank when I asked if they knew that a large Black Jewish synagogue was once active a few blocks away.
Some residents identified the Black Jews with a group of street preachers, often active in the plaza of the Adam Powell Jr. State Office Building. “Black Jews? You don’t mean those people preaching?” said one woman, sitting alongside an elderly woman in a wheelchair. “They’re usually out by CVS, on weekends.” A man chatting outside a shop near 126th Street gave a similar reply.
And when a nanny responded quizzically to my mention of Black Jews, a woman sitting nearby quickly corrected her. “There are many Black Jews in the area. I myself identify as a Black Jew. I can’t give you a lot of information, I’m still learning myself. But ask around on the streets—look for someone African.”
There are many Black Jews in the area. I myself identify as a Black Jew.
If the street preachers identify as Black Jews, however, they are, at least officially, unaffiliated with the Commandment Keepers’ movement. “There are the ones who shouldn’t be preaching,” Cobb said, with a nod to the preachers. The story of Cobb’s community—the Black Jewish movement founded by Rabbi Matthew—remains largely unknown to most contemporary Harlem residents. From a thriving community of several hundred members, it seems to have vanished without a trace.
Where did they go?
The Talmud—the traditional collection of Jewish theology, law, and lore—claims that the Jerusalem Temple was destroyed due to strife within the Jewish community. The fate of the Commandment Keepers’ synagogue seems to have followed a similar logic. The Dwight House—the Commandment Keepers mansion home on West 123rd—was sold amidst a fight between rival factions of the congregation. Rabbi Shlomo Levy, leader of Beth Elohim Hebrew Congregation and the author of several essays on the website of the International Israelite Board of Rabbis, likened the conflict to the feud between the Montagues and Capulets in Romeo and Juliet.
We simply wanted the fighting to end and prayed that the wonderful times we shared together, could return.
The trouble began when the movement’s leader, Rabbi Wentworth Matthew, passed away. Rabbi Matthew, whose friend and ethnographer Howard Brotz described him as “the vocal and most charming leader of Harlem’s largest Black Jewish congregation,” elected his 17-year-old grandson, David Dore, as his spiritual successor, granting the young Dore rabbinical ordination shortly before his death. However, a fight soon broke out between Dore and Rabbi Chaim White, one of Matthew’s senior disciples, over who would lead the synagogue.
Relations between the two men—and their supporters—eventually reached an all-time low. Rabbi Dore was locked out of the synagogue and banned from preaching; his son’s Bar-Mitzvah was held on a curb in 1994 because his family was not allowed to use the sanctuary. Rabbi Levy remembers these events “like a child who grew up in a dysfunctional family.” He continued, “We simply wanted the fighting to end, and prayed that the wonderful times we shared together with the combatants when we were as one unified and harmonious family, could return.”
The synagogue stopped
But it was not to be. Congregants grew frustrated with the endless fighting, and synagogue membership declined. At one point, some 200 people were barred from attending service. Amid falling attendance, the board of the Commandment Keepers—all men in their seventies and eighties—decided to sell the Dwight House. “It may be that they feared that the building might have fallen into the hands of their nemesis should they die or retire,” reflected Rabbi Levy. Whatever the reason, the decision to sell the synagogue was a mortal blow. The building had been a flagship for the community for 45 years. When the synagogue stopped functioning, the Black Jews dispersed.
However, the Commandment Keepers didn’t go without a fight. Since 2007, when the board sold the synagogue, a nearly continuous succession of lawsuits has been active to reclaim ownership of the building from its purchasers, known in court records as simply 31 Mount Morris Park, LLC.
In 2009, the New York State Supreme Court ruled in the company’s favor. A court order in the curved handwriting of Justice Richard Braun granted “summary judgment, declaring that said defendant [31 Mount Morris Park, LLC] is the record owner of the subject real property.” An appellate court decision affirmed the verdict in 2010. The Commandment Keepers’ claims were not deemed legally viable because the synagogue board had been the property’s legal owners.
The End of an Era
They may be few in number, but at least a handful of Harlemites know the story of the Black Jews. “They’re not here no more,” said one resident, standing outside a dry-cleaners on Malcolm X. “They used to be here. I think they sold [the Dwight House] to remodel it as condominiums. That’s what they’re doing with everything around here.”
The man, who preferred to remain anonymous, is right in part; the real estate company that bought the Dwight mansion was planning to turn it into condos when the 2008 recession hit. Then, in 2010, the company sold it to Daryl Pinckney and James Fenton, the couple that owns the Dwight House today.
Pinckney and Fenton are engaged in a massive project to restore the house to its former glory as a single-family estate, using design plans obtained from the heirs of John Dwight. “We are sure that had we not been the buyers, this battered house would have been gut-renovated,” the couple wrote in 2015. “Its curved mahogany doors [would have been] slung in the dumpster. Instead, they are on their hinges to stay, 125 years after they were hung there.” In addition to living in the house, when it’s finished, Fenton and Pinckney are considering opening it to the public for cultural events.
This is a landmark temple and they are doing extensive construction that is against their permits issued to landmarks.
To the Commandment Keepers, however, the building’s renovations, which included removing the Jewish star that adorned the building’s front entrance and replacing it with a cast-lead window, are the last chapter in an enduring tragedy.
A file of 37 complaints issued to the New York City Department of Buildings records the community’s frantic attempts to halt construction on the Dwight House.
“Illegal construction at location. Location is doing construction without permits, please investigate,” reads one complaint from March 2012. “Even though permits has been issued from the DOB to conduct work in the building. They are working beyond the scope of the permits,” cried another from June. The alarming tone of the Department of Building’s filing system captures the panic that the complaints reveal. Almost all of the complaints were resolved the same way. “No evidence of any work contrary to plans/permits at time of inspection,” read the comments to one from April 2012.
A landmark renovation?
It was a desperate attempt to halt construction. And some petitioners seem to have forgotten what the Dwight House was: a certified landmark for its nineteenth-century architecture. Not because it was a temple.
“This is an landmark temple,” the April complaint reads. “And they are doing extensive construction in building that is against their permits issued to them by landmarks.” The Department of Building’s restraints against landmark renovation—onerous as they are—resonated with the community’s protectiveness of their synagogue. But despite the community’s efforts, they could not prevent the House from reverting to a neo-renaissance mansion.
They took out the piano, the stuff, all the church stuff.
One resident of 123rd street remembers the Commandment Keeper’s persistent protests of the Dwight House renovations. He has lived on the block for 30 years and witnessed the building’s gradual transformation back to a historic townhouse. “The Englishman has it,” he said, referring to James Fenton, who is an English poet. “Every now and then they [the Commandment Keepers] come and look at the building and pray. They’re still fighting for it. [Fenton] offered them 2.5 – something million dollars for it, but they wanted the synagogue.” He noted that the protests haven’t done much to halt renovations. “They took out the piano, the stuff, all the church stuff.”
As of 2013, an attempt to reclaim the building was still ongoing. It seems unlikely, however, that the Black Jews of Harlem will return anytime soon.