The Black Hebrew, who live in a community in Dimona in the Southern part of Israel, are humble people with lives are based on the values of love between brothers, man and his God and man and nature.
The story of this community began in Chicago in the Sixties of the Twentieth Century. Their leader, Ben-Ami Ben-Israel, who had worked as a bus driver in his youth, began to get closer to Judaism and claimed to have experienced a divine revelation. The group of followers who accepted his leadership considered themselves to be the descendents of the ten lost tribes of Israel, who had been banished to Africa and later sold into slavery in America. To this day, Ben-Ami Ben-Israel is the unquestioned leader of the community of the Black Hebrews. As Christians, the members of the group were educated on the stories of the Old Testament and learned about the people that came out of slavery to freedom. This awakened great empathy and provided inspiration, identity, and hope for redemption and a better future.
From 1971, the State of Israel closed its gates to the members of the community and a 50 members were returned to the United States. Also expelled were members of the community who had been living in Israel but still maintained their American citizenship. (Most of the members of the community who gave up their American citizenship could not be expelled). In reaction the community marshaled American public opinion that accused the Government of Israel of being racist. Their appeal to the Israeli Supreme Court to recognize their right to make “aliyah” based on the Law of Return was rejected. The court determined that they had no right to be absorbed in the country on account of their not being Jewish. Nevertheless, the Supreme Court asked the Government of Israel to allow those Black Hebrews who were already living in Israel to remain in the country. The rigidity the Israeli government showed towards the community only made them more determined to stay. The community became more unified and independent. Other members of the community who arrived in Israel as tourists found sanctuary in one of the community’s centers in Dimona, Arad and Mitzpe Ramon. In this way their numbers grew and the few apartments that had been assigned to them became more crowded. However the houses are one-story houses surrounded by gardens and the environment is clean and well tended. The atmosphere is quiet and tranquil, and only some added constructions indicate the great crowding: 1200 persons live in 60 apartments, some of which also have public functions like a prayer house, a library, schoolrooms, a restaurant, a sawing room and a dinning hall for the children.
The members of the community are vegetarians or naturalists. Their diet consists mainly of fruit, vegetables, cereals and almonds, thus answering both their physical and spiritual needs. Yada, the deputy information minister of the community, explains about their view in this matter: “The right nutrition affects fruitful and positive thinking, and these in return bring about positive action. Taking up positive actions is considered a way of expressing our love of God.” They grow a good amount of their food using organic agriculture methods. To that end, they have rented a farm in one of the Moshavim in the western Negev. The decision to move to organic food was already thought about in Liberia, where they found that it was impossible to get any American staples like meat and fish and preserved food. When this was not available to them they adopted new modes of nutrition. Once every several months they hold a “green vegetable week.” As in Paradise, before man sinned by eating, they eat only fresh vegetables and fruit. Three times a week they eat food without adding salt. Pregnant women have a special nutritious diet. Carlia, who is responsible for the nutrition of the community, says that since they found the right balance between the components of their nutrition, sickness in the community has ped significantly.
Sickness is treated in a naturalistic way based on herbs. Only when the case is critical do they submit to conventional treatment provided by state hospitals. Maintaining their health is demonstrated also in the way members of the community dress. Their clothes are made only of natural fabrics such as cotton, linen, silk and wool. They do not wear any synthetic clothes. Marnina explains: “the skin of the body is like a big nose that must inhale. It needs clothes that enable it. We know that clothes made of natural materials constitute the best way of preventing skin diseases.”
They do not have a “hospital” but rather a “House of Life” where the women of the community give birth to their children. “The House of Life” was built in 1972 in a neighborhood called “The Victory,” and moved to its new location in 1980. Most of the deliveries are made here, but in cases of hard delivery or when there is a fear of complication, the woman is taken to the Soroka hospital in Beer Sheva. Ofra and Azaria are “healers” and midwives of the community. Azaria worked as a nurse in a hospital for eighteen years. They say that proper nutrition during pregnancy and a half-hour walk every morning makes for an easy delivery. Treatment and follow-up of pregnancy begins as soon as the woman makes her pregnancy known. It includes proper diet and comprehensive spiritual treatment that is performed once a week by one of the priests who reads a chapter of Psalms or another chapter that expresses the love of God to the fetus in the woman’s belly. The woman chooses the posture of delivery, although most deliveries are done by sitting on a strong woman who sits on a chair or by crouching. Following delivery, the mother and baby stay in the House of Life for follow-up and rest for two weeks (the crowding in this house is much smaller than in regular state hospitals). The rest period of the mother lasts 40 days, if the child is male and 80 if the child is female. The women of the community treat the woman and help her in taking care of herself and her family. The nutrition of the child in the first five months of life is the milk of its mother; if the mother does not have enough milk, a wet nurse is found. As much as possible, the mother is encouraged to nurse until the child is two years old.
The community has found solutions that would enable living in dignity as individuals and as families in their communities. To that end the needs of the community have been defined and adjusted to various persons’ abilities and skills: teachers, nurses, maintenance persons, gardeners, etc. Young persons go out to the big cities in order to sell the produce of the community – its special clothes, cloth shoes and jewelry. The community has established music bands that play in the Afro-American style while some community singers perform with other bands in Tel-Aviv and other towns. The choir of the community performs professionally. In Tel-Aviv, the Black Hebrews maintain a restaurant that serves the naturalist dishes for which the community if famous. Members are directed not to be too selective about jobs and are encouraged to take any job outside the community that will bring in extra income. However, employers often take advantage of members of the community who do not have work permissions.
The members of the community are not necessarily monogamous. This way of life that seems chauvinistic has several reasons: the number of women in the community exceeds that of men considerably so that polygamy is a solution. When a married man wants to have a woman as his second wife the woman can turn to his first wife or other wives and try and find out about him. These were not the habits of the community in the past. Carilia says that there were many arguments about this idea and when her husband took a second wife she was not very happy about it because the community was not yet ready for that.
The community strictly celebrates the festivals mentioned in the Bible: Passover, Shavu’ot, Succoth, Yom Kippur and Memory of the Trumpet Call (that is the name of Rosh Ha’Shana in the Bible). They also celebrate two additional holidays – one in the middle of May – Passover of the New World – to memorialize the first group that came out of slavery into freedom, leaving of the United States for Liberia where the group crystallized and purified itself before making “aliyah” to Israel. The second additional holiday is celebrated at the end of February – the celebration of appreciation and mutual regard. The celebration is about love and giving between members of the community and is celebrated in order to fortify the unity of the community. From the middle of Friday the community gets organized for the Sabbath. In the central square of the neighborhood, the artists of the community lay out their products. In each house, cleaning-up and cooking of the meal preceding the fast take place. Members of the community fast every Saturday from the hour that Sabbath begins until it is over. This custom is derived from commands of the follow year: in the same way that the land must rest every seventh year of any agricultural activity, so must the human body rest of digestion every few days and there is no day more suitable than the Sabbath.
The community views Israel as the spiritual center of the world and itself as the emissary of a holistic teaching of living based on love of Creation and all its components. The community has an ambassador who travels to other centers of the community in the world, reads sermons that call for awakening and getting free of shackles of meaninglessness. The uniqueness of the community attracts visitors who come to try an alternative way of life, however only few remain permanently. Some members of the community view people who leave as not ready or strong enough in their belief. Marnina says: “We are open to absorb anyone who looks for meaning in his or her life, regardless of sex, religion, color and race. The only condition is the readiness to accept the commands of God and obey the rules of the community.”
It is hard to remain indifferent to this very special community, particularly due to the simple way of life it maintains.