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In face of doubters, Black rabbi finds his spiritual destiny Faith is Proof Enough

The timeless hush of Sabbath peace has fallen on the dozen or so faithful gathered in the tiny house of prayer at Collington Avenue and Ashland Avenue in East Baltimore.

The men and women of the Congregation Beth HaShem read from the siddur, the Jewish prayer book, the men bowed under the blue-and-white tallit, or prayer shawl, their heads covered with yarmulkes, the women veiled and hidden in elaborate robes and headdresses.

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Sabbath morning at Beth HaShem -- the house of God -- begins as it has for thousands of years in grand temples and simple shuls from Jerusalem to Bialystok to Baltimore. But here, all the worshipers are African-Americans, who face the double-barreled question of whether they are really Jewish from some white Jews and why they are Jewish at all from some blacks.

Rabbi George McDaniel is Beth HaShem's founder, mentor, guide and spiritual leader. A stocky, broad-shouldered, charismatic man of 42, he has the look of a prophet.

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He's annoyed by people who question his Jewishness and sometimes amused.

"If you're black and you say I'm Jewish, now you have to prove your Jewishness," he says. "Sometimes people walk up to us and ask: are you Jewish? Do you eat bagels? Do you like lox? Do you do this? Do you like that?

"You're questioned to the point of -- prove you're Jewish," he says. Jews newly arrived from Russia and Eastern Europe never have their identity questioned, he argues, because they are white.

Rabbi McDaniel's proof is this Sabbath service, where the men are wearing the somber black suits, the buttoned-up white shirts and the dangling side curls called payess, which are the hallmarks of the orthodox Hasidim.

Cantor Albert Askew pulls his prayer shawl over his head, obscuring his face like an Israelite on the path of the Exodus. He begins the service with the morning prayers: "Baruch attah Adonai (Blessed art thou O Lord)" . . . His voice is full and strong and sweet when he leads the congregation in the Shema Yisroel, the Jewish declaration of faith in one God.

At Beth HaShem, the Star of David over the bema is homemade from slats of blue-painted wood and the Ten Commandments hand-lettered in Hebrew on the tablets. The ark is small and the Torah behind the wine-colored curtains is printed, not hand-lettered. But devotion hangs as thick in the air as ozone before a summer storm. Some of Baltimore's most renowned synagogues began in rooms as modest as Beth HaShem's.

Rabbi McDaniel unearthed his own Judaism from shards of family history, like a biblical archaeologist.

He traces his Jewish roots back to a great-great-grandmother who had settled in Ireland and took the name McDaniel. He likes to say his name McDaniel, the son of Daniel, can be translated into the Hebrew Ben Daniel. He's given to quoting from the biblical Book of Daniel, the Old Testament book with an apocalyptic vision and an acceptance of resurrection.

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He was born in East Baltimore and his parents identified themselves as Jewish, but they were not observant when he was a child. Enough Jewishness survived to make him search for more. They observed the Sabbath and he had to quote Torah passages before eating.

"And we could never say the same passage twice," he says. "As I got older and looked into it I found out that what we actually practiced was Judaism.

"When I found out I really felt like I was home," Rabbi McDaniel says. "You find this joy about finding your heritage and who you are and then you go to people and they say: 'Oh, no, you can't be Jewish, go away, go away.'

"I don't hate those who did it, but I feel I don't need them. I know who I am now," he says.

Ancient ordination

In the late '60s, he sought out the late Eliezer Wright, a revered African-American rabbi in West Baltimore. He studied with him five years.

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"Rabbi Wright was a very gentle, loving man who was very knowledgeable about Torah," Rabbi McDaniel says. He was ordained by Rabbi Wright in 1972.

Such ordinations are rare now in America. Ordination is more often these days conferred by yeshivas or seminaries. Rabbi McDaniel's ordination harks back to ancient Israel.

He's been a rabbi 23 years. He launched Beth HaShem 12 years ago at the urging of a group of students with whom he was studying.

He says he can't put a number on the size of the congregation, but many of his original students are still with him. And they are devoted to the faith.

"The rabbi made me aware of my heritage," says Michael McDaniel, 41, whose father, mother and grandmother were Jewish. He is not related to his rabbi.

"We discussed our lineage and our heritage as a people," says Mr. McDaniel, a carpenter who works evenings at a kosher food market in Pikesville. "He inspired me to religion 10 years ago. I have been an observant Jew since then."

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The cantor, Albert Askew, 23, is the rabbi's nephew. He's always thought of himself as Jewish. He's been studying cantorial prayer with Cantor Abraham Denburg. During the week he's a fingerprinting specialist at City Jail.

"I've been raised all my life under the rabbi," Mr. Askew says. "As a matter of fact my whole family has been.

"The rabbi's taught our family about the Sabbath, and the feast days, just bringing us close to the truth."

Jewish in deed

Rabbi McDaniel's truth favors the strict observance of the Hasidic Jews, whose renowned piety dates from the 18th-century Baal Shem Tov, the progenitor of a joyous new Judaism.

"On the Sabbath," he says, "our wives light the candles and say the appropriate blessings and we have two loaves of challah bread on the table and wine and appropriate prayers. We do Havdalah [the Saturday evening ceremony that] marks the separation of holy and the secular.

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"We keep kosher," he says. "We shop at the Seven Mile Lane kosher market. People in the congregation who live in East Baltimore [without cars] take the bus up all the way up there to shop. To me, that's dedication.

"We study biblical teachings, rabbinical teachings, Talmud and midrash," the rabbi says. "We blow shofar [the ram's horn the cantor sounds at the Jewish New Year].

"We get married under the huppah [the bridal canopy]. We have even talked about prearranged marriages. We're going to have our own school for our children, to be called 'Samuel School of the Prophets.' We do circumcise our children, our sons, on the eighth day, according to Torah.

"We practice Judaism," he says with finality.

He's sensitive about the mixed acceptance Beth HaShem has met in the wider Jewish community. Beth HaShem has been welcomed by some congregations, ignored by others. Rabbi McDaniel's congregation is not affiliated with any of the major Jewish organizations for Orthodox, Conservative or Reform Jews.

But Beth HaShem people have gone to festivals and fairs and rallies for Israel in Jewish Northwest Baltimore and the Pikesville area. Rabbi McDaniel has even thought of moving to Israel and encouraging his followers to emigrate, too.

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"It would be nice for our little congregation to see other black Jews," he says, in an apparent reference to the settlement of Jews from Ethiopia.

Differences

Beth HaShem deviates most from conventional Judaism in its belief in Yeshuah (Jesus) as a messiah and the promise of resurrection, and perhaps in the veiling of women.

Rabbi McDaniel quotes Torah, Talmud, prophets, the mystical writings of the cabala and Zohar, in defense of all three. He cites the Book of Daniel on resurrection. He observes that followers of the Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the leader of the Lubavitcher Hasidim, called their rebbe the messiah and expected his resurrection.

Rabbi McDaniel thinks the wider Jewish community should seek out African-American Jews hidden in the inner cities of American they do lost Jews in Eastern Europe and Russia.

"To me, I feel we have black Jews in the inner city and all over the world who may not know who they are," he says. "I feel that's my task. I want to make them aware that there is a possibility that being black you may be Jewish.

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"When you go back in history and look at Abraham, Moses and all the prophets and where they grew up at in the East, there's no such thing as a white Jew. That's the reality of it."

He thinks African-American Jews could be mediators between white Jews and black Muslims. "Sometimes I feel it might be that we will be the link that will bind the two together," he says.

"A lot of blacks feel that Jews should stop talking about the Holocaust," he says. "And then people are saying Jews say forget about slavery.

"This is what we should be saying to each other: No, you shouldn't forget the Holocaust. No, you shouldn't forget slavery. We want to look at the past and learn from the past."


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