Inside the secretive Black Hebrew Israelite sect of Harlem, linked to Monsey stabber

New York Post/January 4, 2020

By Princess Jones

The couple who shot up a kosher market in Jersey City last month and the suspect in the Hanukkah stabbings in upstate Monsey had connections to the Black Hebrew Israelites, a secretive sect with some members preaching hate against Jews. David Anderson, one of the shooters killed in the Dec. 10 firefight which resulted in six dead, published rabid anti-Semitic screeds on social media and was inspired by the group. Grafton Thomas, the accused stabber who injured five Hanukkah celebrants inside a rabbi’s home last week, had attended the sect’s house of worship in East Harlem. Months before the two attacks, in early February, Post reporter Princess Jones attended a service at the storefront temple. This is her story.

It was dark when I approached the building on Madison Avenue, the world headquarters of the Black Hebrew Israelites. I stood for several minutes on the opposite side of the street, summoning the courage to knock on their door.

The gatekeeper of the Israelite Church of God in Jesus Christ was dressed completely in black. He was straightforward but guarded as he peered at me through a crack in the door.

One of my relatives is a follower of the group, but I knew little about them except that their members view themselves as God’s “chosen people,” and believe that African Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans are the real descendants of the 12 Tribes of Israel.

Last January, as I watched the viral video of the confrontation between a group of Catholic school students and Black Hebrew Israelite street preachers during the March for Life at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, I suddenly wanted to know more.

“How did you hear about the church?” asked the gatekeeper. “Are you familiar with the faith?”

I told him the truth — that a family member attended their sermons in my hometown in North Carolina. But he seemed not to hear me, and kept asking more questions before he opened the door and allowed me in. Before I could step across the threshold, the doorkeeper wanted to know more.

He asked me if I was on my period.

I wasn’t, but they must have noticed my look of shock, and explained to me that women on their periods are considered “unclean” and barred from religious services.

Before they allowed me to pass, I was searched for drugs and weapons with a metal detector. They asked me to open my purse, and demanded that I hand over my cellphone. When I asked why, they responded, “for security reasons.”

Finally, I walked into the sanctuary, past doors emblazoned with the Star of David and two men in long purple vests with gold piping and puffy white shirts who identified themselves as “high priests.” On the wall behind them was a large plaque with their version of the 12 tribes of Israel: the “Negroes” belong to the tribe of Judah, the Cubans to Manasseh; West Indians to Benjamin; Native Americans to Gad; the Haitians to Levi, and so on.

Honestly, I didn’t know what to expect as I made my way to a chair and someone handed me a Bible. Later, I was given a copy of the Apocrypha, a collection of religious teachings central to the beliefs of the Black Hebrew Israelites.

My relative who was part of the group had once described what was involved in their religious conversions. Basically, it amounted to this: Everything I had been taught in my Christian faith was a lie. Blacks were the “true” children of God. We were the lost Israelite tribes. We could go to heaven if we followed the Ten Commandments and stayed away from eating pork and shellfish, among other beliefs. White people were our oppressors, she said. According to my relative, as an African American woman, I was a “true Jew” even though the religion uses elements from both Christianity and Judaism.

“Jesus Christ loves Israel,” said one of the high priests. He spoke in a strong, proud voice, addressing the congregation, which consisted of me and five other people. “Our people are lost because they have been lied to by the European people.”

The priest went on to say in a determined and matter-of-fact voice that the mission of the church was to tell people these truths. Somehow, I expected him to be louder, to wave his arms around, maybe even to stomp his feet. But there was none of that. Instead, there was a measured and calm assurance that what he was preaching was simply the truth.

“There is no other church on the planet earth that will teach you the true word of God,” he continued. “Other churches are the Anti-Christ. You must be a part of the Israelite church to hear the truth.”

I had heard much the same from my relative in that same measured tone of voice. I had once made the mistake of introducing her to a classmate after my graduation from Trevecca Nazarene University in Nashville. My friend is white, and I had warned my relative to be “nice” to her and stay away from conversations about religion. But it was not to be helped. During a discussion of the Bible, my relative declared that none of the others in the group would ever make it to heaven because they were not the “chosen ones.”

At the Harlem temple, the high priest skipped from scripture to scripture to justify his version of the word of God. It was difficult to understand some of his conclusions.

“If you’re wondering why we skip through verses, that’s because it’s how you get understanding of the word,” said the high priest, probably noticing the confusion on my face.

We had been told that there would be a question-and-answer period at the end of the service that was now stretching beyond three hours. But as the clock ticked past 9 p.m., the priest showed no sign of interrupting the sermon for questions.

The Black Hebrew Israelites are a secretive bunch. When I mentioned to my relative that I was going to write a story about them, and wanted to interview her, she panicked, worried that I would portray members of the group as evil. She said she needed to check with the elders of the church before she would be allowed to speak to me.

Toward the end of the Harlem service, one of the high priests emphasized that the church was there to help with any emotional issues. Maybe he was worried about the bad publicity associated with the religion. The church is considered a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League.

“We have a counselor set up for members of the congregation,” he told us. “We know what built-up emotions can do.”

Leaving the church, I felt many different emotions. I appreciated the opportunity to be part of the sermon and to try to understand what the Black Hebrew Israelites are all about. But I also felt sad and hurt to know that some of my people are so lost.

And for those brothers and sisters, all I can really do is pray.

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