Dozens of Black Hebrew groups were founded during the late 1800s and the early 1900s. In the mid-1980s, the number of Black Hebrews in the United States was between 25,000 and 40,000. In the 1990s, the Alliance of Black Jews estimated that there were 200,000 African-American Jews, including Black Hebrews and those recognized as Jews by mainstream Jewish organizations.
The beliefs and practices of Black Hebrew groups vary considerably. The differences are so great that historian James Tinney has suggested the classification of the organizations into three groups: Black Jews, who maintain a Christological perspective and adopt Jewish rituals; Black Hebrews, who are more traditional in their practice of Judaism; and Black Israelites, who are most nationalistic and farthest from traditional Judaism.
Nevertheless, Black Hebrew organizations have certain common characteristics. Anthropologist James E. Landing, author of Black Judaism, distinguishes the Black Hebrew movement, which he refers to as Black Judaism, from normative Judaism practiced by people who are Black (black Judaism):
Black Judaism is ... a form of institutionalized (congregational) religious expression in which black persons identify themselves as Jews, Israelites, or Hebrews...in a manner that seems unacceptable to the the "whites" of the world's Jewish community, primarily because Jews take issue with the various justifications set forth by Black Jews in establishing this identity. Thus "Black Judaism," as defined here, stands distinctly apart from "black Judaism," or that Judaic expression found among black persons that would be acceptable to the world's Jewish community, such as conversion or birth to a recognized Jewish mother. "Black Judaism" has been a social movement; "black Judaism" has been an isolated social phenomenon.
Landing's definition, and its underlying assumptions about race and normative Judaism, have been criticized, but it provides a helpful framework for understanding some of the common traits that various Black Hebrew organizations share.
The Church of God and Saints of Christ describes itself as "the oldest African-American congregation in the United States that adheres to the tenets of Judaism". It teaches that all Jews had been black originally, and that African-Americans are descendants of the lost tribes of Israel. Members believe that Jesus was neither God nor the son of God, but rather an adherent to Judaism and a prophet. They also consider William Saunders Crowdy to be a prophet.
The Church of God and Saints of Christ synthesizes rituals from both Judaism and Christianity. They have adopted rites drawn from both the Old Testament and New Testament. Its Jewish observances include circumcision of newborn boys, use of the Hebrew calendar, wearing of yarmulkes, observance of Saturday as the Sabbath, and celebration of Passover. Its New Testament rites include baptism (immersion) and footwashing, both of which have Old Testament origins.
The Commandment Keepers follow traditional Jewish practice and observe Jewish holidays. Members observe Jewish dietary laws, circumcise newborn boys and celebrate bar mitzvah, and their synagogue has a partition to separate men and woman during worship.
The Commandment Keepers believe they are descendants of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Matthew taught that "the Black man is a Jew" and "all genuine Jews are Black men", but he valued white Jews as those who had preserved Judaism over the centuries. Matthew maintained cordial ties with white Jewish leaders in New York and frequently invited them to worship at his synagogue.
Matthew established the Ethiopian Hebrew Rabbinical College (later renamed the Israelite Rabbinical Academy). He ordained more than 20 rabbis, who went on to lead congregations throughout the United States and the Caribbean. He remained the leader of the Commandment Keepers in Harlem, and in 1962 the congregation moved to a landmark building on 123rd Street.
Matthew died in 1973, sparking an internal conflict over who would succeed him as head of the Harlem congregation. Shortly before his death Matthew named his grandson, David Matthew Doré, the new spiritual leader. Doré was 16 years old at the time. In 1975, the synagogue's board elected Rabbi Willie White to be its leader. Rabbi Doré occasionally conducted services at the synagogue until the early 1980s, when White had Doré and some other members locked out of the building. Membership declined throughout the 1990s and by 2004 only a few dozen people belonged to the synagogue. In 2007 the Commandment Keepers sold the building that housed their synagogue while various factions among former members sued one another.
Beside the Harlem group, there are eight or ten Commandment Keeper congregations in the New York area and others throughout North America and in Israel. Since 2000, seven rabbis have graduated from the Israelite Rabbinical Academy founded by Matthew.
Ben Ammi Ben Israel established the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem in Chicago, Illinois, in 1966. In 1969, after a sojourn in Liberia, Ben Ammi and about 30 Hebrew Israelites moved to Israel. Over the next 20 years nearly 600 more members left the United States for Israel. As of 2006, about 2,500 Hebrew Israelites live in Dimona and two other towns in the Negev region of Israel, where they are widely referred to as Black Hebrews. In addition, there are Hebrew Israelite communities in several major American cities, including Chicago, St. Louis, and Washington, D.C.
The Black Hebrews believe they are descended from members of the Tribe of Judah who were exiled from the Land of Israel after the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in 70 CE. The group incorporates elements of African American culture into their interpretation of the Bible, and they do not recognize rabbinical Jewish interpretations such as the Talmud. The Black Hebrews observe Shabbat and biblically-ordained Jewish holidays such as Yom Kippur and Passover. Men wear tzitzit on their African print shirts, women follow the biblical laws concerning menstruation, and newborn boys are circumcised. In accordance with their interpretation of the Bible, the Black Hebrews follow a strictly vegan diet and wear only natural fabrics. Most men have more than one wife, and birth control is not permitted.
When the first Black Hebrews arrived in Israel in 1969, they claimed citizenship under the Law of Return, which gives eligible Jews immediate citizenship. The Israeli government ruled in 1973 that the group did not qualify for automatic citizenship, and the Black Hebrews were denied work permits and state benefits. The group responded by accusing the Israeli government of racist discrimination. In 1981, a group of American civil rights activist led by Bayard Rustin investigated and concluded that racism was not the cause of Black Hebrews' situation. No official action was taken to return the Black Hebrews to the United States, but some individual members were deported for working illegally. Some Black Hebrews renounced their American citizenship to try to prevent more deportations. In 1990, Illinois legislators helped negotiate an agreement that resolved the Black Hebrews' legal status in Israel. Members of the group are permitted to work and have access to housing and social services. The Black Hebrews reclaimed their American citizenship and have received aid from the U.S. government that helped them build a school and additional housing. In 2003 the agreement was revised, and the Black Hebrews were granted permanent resident status.
The Black Hebrews have become well-known for their gospel choir, which tours throughout Israel and the United States. The group owns restaurants in several Israeli cities. In 2003 the Black Hebrews garnered much public attention when singer Whitney Houston visited them in Dimona. In 2006, Eddie Butler, a Black Hebrew, was chosen by the Israeli public to represent Israel in the Eurovision Song Contest.