Commandment Keepers

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The Commandment Keepers Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation of the Living God Pillar & Ground of Truth, Inc. are a sect of Black Hebrews, founded in 1919 by Wentworth Arthur Matthew,[1] who believe that people of Ethiopian descent represent one of the lost tribes of Israel.[1] They claim King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba as their ancestors, and believe the biblical patriarchs to have been black.[2]

Rabbi Wentworth Arthur Matthew holding a Torah scroll.

The mother congregation of the movement has since 1962 been located at 1 West 123rd Street in Harlem, New York City. Most of its members are Afro-Caribbean but it has always had diverse visitors and occasionally white members. They use the De Sola Pool Spanish and Portuguese prayerbook, the Hertz Chumash, parchment Torah scrolls, and offer standard orthodox Sephardi style Sabbath and Jewish Holy Day services.

The congregation is featured in a scene from the 1970 motion picture The Angel Levine[3] which starred Harry Belafonte and Zero Mostel. On June 12, 1971 Rabbi W.A. Matthew ordained three individuals as rabbis, his grandson Rabbi David Matthew Doré, Rabbi Jonah McCullough, and Rabbi Willie White. In 1973, Matthew died, creating an internal conflict over who would be the new leader. David Matthew Doré, who was 18 years old at the time, was named by Rabbi Matthew as spiritual leader of the congregation just before Matthew’s death. In 1975, the board of the congregation elected Willie White to be the new leader and without congregational approval shortened the name to Commandment Keepers Congregation. Doré continued to host services at the synagogue until the early 1980s, when White began locking people out. Doré at this time was working as a lawyer, but states that he often tried to enter the synagogue. Throughout the 1990s membership was declining. In 2004, Zechariah ben Lewi became the rabbi for the Commandment Keepers, and membership has dropped to eight people, with over two hundred actual members locked out of the temple. A lawsuit was filed against Doré that year for wrongfully claiming himself to be the spiritual leader of the congregation. The court ruled against Doré.[4] The ruling was overturned on July 9, 2007.[5] The board proceeded to sell the building at 1 West 123rd Street. Doré, as attorney for Commandment Keepers Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation of the Living God Pillar and Ground of Truth, Inc., filed a lawsuit against the board for selling the historic landmark, and in October 2007 a court vacated the sale and ordered a trial.[6] As of 2011, Doré's suit against the buyer and the individual who claimed authority to sell the historic landmark was pending.[7] The named defendants submitted motions to dismiss the action, Doré, as counsel for the congregation, filed opposition papers and both motions were denied. Defendants then appealed to the Appellate Division First Department. After oral argument the Appellate Division, in a unanimous decision issued June 4, 2013, denied defendants appeal to dismiss the case and affirmed the ruling of the lower court that denied defendants motion to dismiss.[8] The case is on the trial calendar for April 2, 2014 before Justice Richard F. Braun.

The congregation will be profiled in a documentary film currently under development, which will be released in the near future.[9]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b The Manhattan African-American History and Culture Guide, Museum of the City of New York
  2. ^ University of Virginia New Religious Movements website
  3. ^ The Angel Levine, MGM.com
  4. ^ Herschthal, Eric (2007-07-06). "Decline Of A Black Synagogue". The Jewish Week. Retrieved 2008-02-09. 
  5. ^ Commandment Keepers v. Doré, David Matthew. Supreme Court of the State of New York. Index #100769/2004.
  6. ^ Commandments Keepers. Supreme Court of the State of New York. Index #117509/2006.
  7. ^ Commandment Keepers v. 31 Mount Morris Park. Supreme Court, New York County. Index #106102/2007.
  8. ^ Commandment Keepers Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation of the Living God v. 31 Mount Morris Park, LLC 107 A.D.3d 406, 965 N.Y.S.2d 727 N.Y.A.D. 1 Dept. 2013.
  9. ^ "The Commandment Keepers" film website

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