New York's Jewish Week has a peek into a little-known world of an historic Harlem congregation.
A West Indian immigrant with an Ethiopian Jewish father, Rabbi Wentworth Arthur Matthew founded the Commandment Keepers congregation in 1919, and which followed Orthodox Jewish practices. Members observed all Jewish holidays, kept kosher, performed circumcisions and bar mitzvahs, and the synagogue had a mechitza separating men’s and women’s seats.
According to the story, a 1937 Time magazine article indicated some 600 black Jews in Harlem were congregation members; most from Ethiopia, a few American converts. Rabbi Matthew was described as having been born in Lagos, West Africa, and held a doctor of divinity degree from the University of Berlin, having studied in Tel Aviv and at the Pittsburgh Bible Institute.
The story describes contentious issues such as membership decline, the sale of their registered historic building at 1 W. 123 St., and a 30-year legal battle over spiritual leadership, dueling rabbis, rabbinical colleges and boards.
According to San Francisco-based demographer Gary Tobin, there are an estimated 50,000-150,000 black Jews in America, although "that number is based on the broadest possible definition, which includes those in congregations not affiliated with the Israelite Board of Rabbis."
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