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African-American Jews

BOB ABERNETHY, anchor: We have a story today about a woman who is both African American and an Orthodox Jew, a rare but real combination in this country. Her very name expresses her mixed identity — Yavilah McCoy — and she is devoting her talent and energy to using music — Gospel music — to try to overcome the prejudice she has experienced from other Jews. Menachem Daum reports.

YAVILAH MCCOY: I don’t think it’s a simple thing to try to navigate both Jewish and black identity simultaneously in the context of raising a family. It’s hard. It involves a lot of sacrifice. It involves a lot of joy.

MENACHEM DAUM: Yavilah McCoy is one of several thousand African-American Jews. To create a better future for her children, Yavilah wants it known that Jews come in a variety of shades and colors. For the past several years, Yavilah has led workshops that combine classical Jewish liturgy with her family’s rich Gospel tradition.

Ms. MCCOY (leading group of white Jews singing in Hebrew the Gospel version of “Modeh Ani Lifanecha”): And the kishkas are about this soul: “Thank God for this soul that’s in me, oh yeah.” He woke me up this morning and I’m glad, so glad, about it.

The spirit doesn’t have a color, and this whole thing I do now with song is just because I feel like music is a way in which people access spirit quite immediately.

Ms. MCCOY (singing): And I’m glad, so glad about it, you know, I ‘m glad down in my soul.

UNIDENTIFIED JEWISH WOMAN: I’m sure there are white Jews who may have taken Hebrew songs and put them to Gospel music, just because Gospel’s part of our vocabulary, our musical vocabulary. But if a white Jew would do it I’d say, like, you know, I would say that isn’t ours.

Ms. MCCOY: What you got to do is say, “I went to Limud in New York, and I met my sister of color, and when I met my sister of color she sang some songs to me that now are a part of our people, and I want to share them with you because this is what our people look like now.” Today “our people” is changing. Today “our people” is broad. Today “our people” come from those places I told you. Our people come from Sudan and Ethiopia, and our people come from America, and our people come from Brooklyn, and our people come from New Jersey, and our people come from Yemen and our people — and you get to claim every inch of your Jewish spiritual breath. You get to claim it.

Ms. MCCOY (joined by her grandmother Jeanette Tate and mother Adeena Fulcher, singing in Hebrew a Jewish Gospel song): Adon olam, asher malach.

DAUM: The road towards Judaism was begun by Yavilah’s grandparents. Her grandmother Jeanette studied the Old Testament and concluded that the biblical children of Israel were actually Jews of color. For this reason, Jeanette rejected Christianity and became a member of the group known as “Black Israelites.”

JEANETTE TATE (Grandmother of Yavilah McCoy): We were brought to this country and subjected. We were taken away from what we originally were, and we were taught how Christianity began and how it enslaved our people and how Christianity was imposed on us.

DAUM: As a Black Israelite, Yavilah’s grandmother was not recognized as a Jew by most Jewish denominations.

AHDENAH FULCHER (Mother of Yavilah McCoy, singing in Hebrew): Adon olam, asher malach.

DAUM: Yavilah’s mother, Adeena, wanted to be acknowledged as a Jew without any questions, so she converted to Orthodox Judaism. But when she started having a family she learned that acceptance was hard to get.

Ms. FULCHER: My children started in the yeshivas at a very early age; as soon as they basically were toddling they were in yeshiva. That was not, first of all — depending on where they were — that wasn’t always pleasant. My children paid a price.

Ms. MCCOY: I was in third grade, and they didn’t want to hold my hand. When they would say line up, you know, the kids were scared.

Ms. FULCHER: It traumatizes you. It does things to you, but it doesn’t change who I am. It doesn’t change the fact that we’re Jews. Like it, lump it, or indifferent, that’s who we are. We’re Jews.

Ms. MCCOY (leading group, singing in Hebrew): Ana Hashem ki ani avdecha.

Through music, you don’t have to work that hard. You don’t have to sit and have a conversation with me about what are the obstacles to welcoming difference. All you got to do is just open yourselves up to the music.

(Group dancing and clapping): Hallelujah! All right, Hallelujah!

GROUP OF YOUNG CHILDREN (lighting Hanukkah menorah and singing “Ma’oz Tzur”)

Ms. MCOY: More than anything, this is about the children. This is about the next generation having a chance to be Jews just because.

DAUM: For the sake of her children Yavilah has founded an organization called Ayecha. One of Ayecha’s main events is an annual concert designed to build a community of acceptance for Jews of color.

Ms. MCCOY (speaking to crowd): Whooo! Everybody, hello. Need some of your attention! Okay, you are at a Jewish soul celebration. Welcome. If you didn’t know it, you have arrived at a journey that we’re going to take this evening through the music of Jews from cultures that come from Jerusalem all the way to Africa.

Ms. FULCHER (speaking to crowd): My dad and my grandmother — they came up as Gospel singers in the early days. They came out of the churches, and they could sing. When I say they could sing, they could really sing. And, yeah, they could sing.

Ms. MCCOY (speaking to crowd): If everybody in here has the spirit say, “Amen.”

CROWD: Amen!

Ms. MCCOY (speaking to crowd): If everybody wants to see this again, say “Mazel Tov.”

CROWD: Mazel Tov!

Ms. MCCOY (speaking to crowd): If everybody in here wants to go, say “Oy Vey.”

CROWD: Oy Vey!

Ms. MCCOY (speaking to crowd): If everybody here loves the spiritual journey we’re on, say “Umm hmmmm.”

CROWD: “Umm hmmmm!”

JOSHUA NELSON AND THE KOSHER GOSPEL SINGERS (singing in Hebrew): Adon olam, asher malach.

Ms. MCCOY (dancing and singing, leading Jewish group): I want to sing, sing, sing. I want to shout, shout, shout.

At the end of the day, if all we get to be is white or black Jews, it creates a situation where people have to leave parts of their identity behind. So Ayecha is giving people around the country a taste of what they’re missing every single day. People get a taste of what’s to come. They get a taste of that Jewish community that doesn’t exist yet.

DAUM: Whether or not Yavilah’s song will create the better world she dreams of remains to be seen. But she is guided by the Talmud’s teaching: You’re not obligated to complete the task, but neither are you free to abandon it.

For RELIGION & ETHICS NEWSWEEKLY this is Menachem Daum in New York.

  • T Cunningham

    I too am an African American Jew, where can I go to worship, I live in Queens

  • kyle

    yeah im a african american jew also. my family is mostly christain, im 17 and i dont know how to tell them

  • Madeline Ruth

    T, I would suggest looking up liberal and reform Jewish communities in Queens or surrounding areas. I have found these communities to be quite welcoming and they can also help connect you to more orthodox communities if you seek that. I had trouble finding my place in the Jewish community in conservative southern France, but then I found a reform synagogue when I moved to Barcelona and it’s like a second home. Best of luck to you.

  • mitzi ford

    I, too, converted to Judaism 30 years ago and am an African American. I live in Queens. Is there a Congregation out there? Contact me if you would like to talk msf55@aol.com

  • mjoseph

    I am an African American and I have Jewish ancestry. It is time that the true and original Hebrew Israelite Jews
    reclaim what was stolen from us. Praises be to the God of our fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

  • India

    I am 17 and have the same problem as kyle. I tried to tell my grandma and she basically shunned me.

  • habtamu

    shalom”selam”in Amharic
    am from ethiopia
    where i contact u have postal address sand

  • mevans613

    I must say I thoroughly enjoyed this video. Ms. McCoy is a very courageous woman, stepping out to do what she can to make sure Jews of color are seen not as an oddity, but a vital part of Am Yisrael.

  • Yosef Gluck

    As an asian Jew, this is very uplifting.
    Anyone can be a jew if they are willing.
    Everyone is welcome to daven at our shul in West Orange< nj

  • Shmuel Kush Yishmerai

    Hello Brothers and Sisters. I am what my community call a “New Jew” since I had to convert to Judaism in order to be recognized as a African American Jew/Hebrew, even though I had participated in what I came to know as Jewish practices most of my life. I hope that you all have found a synagogne that, works for you. I know that as a “African American Jew/Hebrew”, that it is hard to find a synagogne home. I am in Denver CO where there’s a big Jewish community so it wasn’t hard for me to find a synagoge that would except me as, “one of their own” but it was very hard for my family to except my faith but they soon came around, so it any of you need any advice about being a African American Jew, please contact me at the above e-mail. Shabbath Shalom

  • Denver

    Shmuel Kush Yishmerai, could you please tell where I can go to study Judaism and feel welcomed as an African American

  • norm schain

    What a spiritually uplifting story! I work with a person of color who has Jewish lineage on his mother’s side. I have encouraged him to further explore that. I am a licensed foster parent awaiting placement of a child and also teach and tutor at Congregation Beth Israel in West Hartford, CT. We are a racially diverse group of active participants all of whom are welcomed as brothers and sisters in the faith. Any of you who live in the area, come and visit with us and I will see to it that you feel at home. To those of you seeking a place to join, as others have said, for your comfort, I would seek out progressive, prehaps Reform, and other such congregations that feature gender equality in all facets of observance and have music as an integral part of the services. I also congratulate you for taking an active interest in pursuing the tenets of your faith and traditions, you are to be highly commended!

  • Shmuel Kush Yishmerai

    Shalom Brothers and Sister. Yom Kippur will soon me upon us and as you know the day commemorates the day that our Israelite ancestors was forgiven by GOD for the sin of idolatry of the Golden Calf. Denver, if you are still looking for a synagoge in Denver CO to worship where you will feel welcome as a African American Jew/Hebrew then contact me … L’Shanan Toveb

  • tn bnite

    I am African American Christian and I want to learn more about being or becoming a Jew/Hebrew. As I have found out that there are more Black Jews than I thought there where. I am seeking a place to be accepted, to learn hebrew and to worship (in Jacksson TN.). Thank You for your help and encourageing sharing. Please excuse any mispelled words, I am a recovering vet (suffering/ with a TBI (Tramitic Brain Injury).Again Thank You very much.

  • Henna Oron

    I am a Surinamese Creole woman. Three of my grandparents had Jewish ancestors. Nevertheless, it is virtually impossible for me to convert to Judaism in Holland where I live. I started when I was 38 and now at 49 still haven’t been able to find a rabbi whether orthodox or reform to even admit me to a conversion program. I won’t give up though, I feel that this is my heritage. It is who I am and who I want to be. I am so glad to have found this community!

  • kohava star

    Hi everyone. I too am an African America Jew. I live in Houston tx. My parents and I converted when I was three and my brother was seven. I asked my father one day, why did he decide to leave Christianity. He told me it didn’t make sense and Judaism fit his personality. Anyway, I have recently found a website that is for Jews of color. It only has 200 or so members, fairly new. I would invite all to check it out.

  • Dora

    Does anyone know of a place in Brooklyn where a woman of color will be welcome to worship preferable a black or mixed shul?

  • B. McFadden

    I just wanted to say how much I enjoyed the video. My husband and I are African American Jews who converted over 30 years ago. We have three adult children who went through a few negative situations also, but they persevered. It is heartening to see others who have experienced some of the same scenerios that my family and I have, especially the children. Now our second generation has begun and I am hoping that it will be even easier for them.

  • Devorah Mixon

    Shalom everyone! I am also African- American Jew adopted into a Catholic family. I yearned to find my birth family because I was so different. I remember my mother came in the home complaining about not working on Saturday and scheduled on Sundays. She explained to me yeah them Jew people. I was about 8 years old and needed to see these people who closed their shops on Friday eve until Sunday. Wow she finally took me to meet them. Even then there was something about Shabbat for me. Some years later I found my birth family. My birthmom passed away but I was reconciled to my brother and sister. They remembered me as Debbie their baby sister. This reunion would lead me to deeper search to discover our Ethiopian Jewish ancestry thru ggggrandmother Elzabeth Ann Gibson Neal. (Betti Neal). My youngest son was heartbroken the jewish community and mistreated in Israel. His heart is now cold but I have hope. I just want to encourage everyone to keep your Judaism alive and well. Judaism cannot be expressed in only one way. Even Ha Shem knew Israel as a nation of many tribes. Am Israel! I’m waiting to see you and your children here in Israel. Come home..

    Shabbat Shalom!

  • Cindy

    Isn’t it great that Jews are found in every nation because God scattered them among the nations.
    Black Jews White Jews Spanish Jews Asian Jews and on it goes, Native American Jews and German Jews.

    No doubt some blacks could be blood Jews from the tribe of Levi because of Moses marrying the Ethiopian woman. This no doubt the same people mentioned when God said he would bring back his people from Ethiopia. They must be the descendants of Moses.

    No one knows what the original Jews looked like in Isaac’s time, but we can be sure they look like the current Middle eastern people.

  • Shmuel Kush Yishmerai

    I do apologize for not getting back to this site in a timely fashion. A great deal of things been happening in my life that I can only relate to them as being “Blessings from G-D”. I am to be wed soon and the arrangements have been extensive. My finance is converting to Judaism and with the aid of my rabbis, members of my community, she is moving nicely through the conversion process. As you all know that we will be celebrating Pesach (Passover), this month. Find yourself a synagogne to attend a Sedar for the first or second night if you can. If not hold your own Sedar with your friends and talk about the Exodus and our peoples’ escape from slavery in Egypt. Haggadahs can be downloaded. My rabbis have just returned from a trip to Israel with members of our community and just before they left for Israel we had a wonderful Purim carnaval at our synagogne. Brother and Sisters in Denver CO if you are still looking for a synagogne to worship you may feel free to contact me at sekou1234@hotmail.com. Please place TEMPLE in the subject block. Shalom

  • Andrea K. ‘Milcah’ Ortiz

    Hello All! I am a Black Latina Jew living in San Diego, and am currently working on my dissertation proposal. I will be writing about the Life Experiences of Jews of Color and would love ANY insights that you may be interested in offering. I am looking to interview people and learn about their experiences in shuls as well as in their daily lives. If you (or anyone you know) are interested in participating, please contact me at: andrea.franklinortiz@myitp.itp.edu

    Also, if you are Jewish and living in Manhattan, here are the names of a few ethnic-friendly shuls:

    Congregation Ohab Zedek (Conservative Orthodox)
    Congregation Ramath Orah (Orthodox)

    Hope this helps!

    Andrea.

  • missy

    I too am an AfroAmerican Jew…I am not entirelly through with my conversion, but still consider myself as such. I wish there was a National African American Jewish Foundation, where we could all convene once a year…

  • Shmuel Kush Yishmerai

    Shalom my Jewish brothers and sisters.

    We are nearing another “Pesach” Passover season and I hope that all of you have found a synagogue to become a part of. The last time that I posted a message on this site I was involved making plans for my wedding and at the same time my new wife was coverting to Judaism. Well, I am happy to inform you all that both the convergence process and the wedding have been completed and in both cases the process was beautiful. My wife (Adarra Eliarna Yishmerai) and I have become very active in our synagogue. We are currently learning Hebrew and studying TORAH in the hope that we will be ready to chant our TORAH portions later this summer. Recently we both chanted an aliyah at our Minyan service along with other couples, who was also chosen to chant the before and after blessings. I am inviting each one of you to contact me to voice your acceptance in the Jewish world as a Afro-American Jew, (Jew of Color, African-American Jew). I do wish that we have an organization like the one that you cited but I do know that there is a group called “Jews of all Hues”. You can also contact Andrea, (see above) as well to voice you experiences. I can be reached at: sekou1234@hotmail.com. Have a happy Shabbat. Shalom

  • Havilah Gorham

    This is a reply to a few posts. There was someone named Cindy who posted that a few jews could’ve been black since Moses married an Ethiopian woman. This is reversed, very few jews could’ve been white because at that time jews were a very dark complexion. There are many instances. Moses hand turned white, it must have been dark. Also the girls at the well said an Egyptian delivered them,at that time a Black Pharoah was on the throne and the people were dark according to pyramid glyphs and walls. This was pre muslim/arab invasion. Pale whites could not have worked on the pyramids for sunburn would’ve killed them. The paintings on the pyramids today have no white jews in Eygpt, only dark ones and no arabs because they came much later to Egypt. Study your history as it lines up with Torah. Cindy that was a very racist comment and can you see how “Black” jews would be offended. I was born a jew who happens to be Black.

    There is a synogogue in St. Albans Queens NY, Beth Elohim Ethiopian Congregation, its conservative and wonderfully welcoming, majority is black.

  • Shmuel Kush Yishmerai

    L’shana Tova to everyone out there. I hope that you all will have a sweet, joyous and properous. Happy fasting for Yom Kippur, which begans at dusk. Peace and Love.

  • marcuscooper2009@yahoo.com

    Andrea my name is Marcus i am interested in and interview,e-mail me so we can connect.

  • Barajas

    Do you actually think That Moses the leader of the Jewish people sang like that? Or do you think that Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai sang like that too? I don’t think so, because there are certain RIGHT ways to sing songs depending on the occasion. As a Goy it seems that black people are converting to Judaism to prove to the world that they can do anything. I agree with the Ortodox community not accepting them as Jews, because what they are trying to do is bring in their pagan way of worship songs that don’t fit with synagogue service, people need to be converting for the right reasons, and not convert to teach the whole world you black and Jewish, you are either black or Jew pick one

  • Newpath-newmooN

    I am an African American college student who recently discovered my genetic maternal line comes from both Lemba and Beta Israel populations. It is nice to see that I am not the only person of colour with a family who identifies as Jewish in America. Blessings and Shalom to all! This video has brightened my day!

  • Aren’t,Hannah

    Moses didn’t sing in the ways that contemporary (White former European/diasporic) jews sing either. Songs sung in synagogues or at Jewish themed events sound like Polish, Czech, Lithuanian etc folk musics and have almost nothing to do with Babylonian, Roman, Northern African etc. roots. Jewish songs are always changing, as is language, cultural tradition and racial make-up (as is to be expected in a diasporic, trans-geographical people of now multiple ethnic configurations). Also, of course someone can be both Black and Jew: every person is made up of multiple (and endlessly nuanced), always fluctuating identity categories. To say otherwise is ludicrous. Are there not Brown Catholics in Central and South America, but also White Catholics in Ireland and France? What about Asian Muslims in Indonesia or China? or White Buddhists in the US? there is no either/or opposition between Jew and Black, as (Algerian-Jewish) Derrida might say, identities are “both-ands”, always simultaneous and perpetually plural. The way Jews look and act now is deeply inconsistent with their ancestors, as they are a population subject to the alterations, machinations and reconfigurations of history (Yiddish for example, is an appropriation of several European languages, biblical Hebrew, slang, colloquialism etc). In fact, it is this distinctly Jewish ability to “move through”- sometimes with and sometimes against History that has allowed them to sustain thousands of years of persecution and displacement. That is to say, Jews come from all over and look like all people – to locate a “Jewish look” is to rehearse a very old form of European anti-semitism

  • Barajas

    Jews and Arabs look alike they have a Semitic face they get that look from Avraham Avine, that is A Jew has a Jewish face, the rest are just converts. In the Zohar Ha’kadosh, we sing songs on hymn and tune more middle eastern music tune not black gospel songs.

  • Aren’t,Hannah

    As I said in my last post, the tunes of Jewish songs change based on the historical place/time in which they sung, and reflect older traditions in combination with the present. They are amalgamations of (cultural-geographic) histories, as all musics (be they religious or non) are. I am a jew who does not fit the look you are describing, and to define a “jewish face” is a highly volatile exercise in physiognomy and racial purity (which are well established tools of fascism, and given that this is a discussion about Jews and other subjugated minorities, potentially fascist thinking devices should be categorically avoided). The notion that someone is just ONE true identity category is both absurd because of how obviously/visibly untrue it is, and also terrifying in its implication: To pin someone down as a fixed central identity is to oppress and render them powerless – vulnerable to further oppression and discrimination