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The answer depends on where you are talking about. First, note that the term "Black Hebrews" is not appreciated (although used) by most individuals in such communiites. The term is used only because they were branded with the name by the predominantly White media some decades ago. The problems with the term is that it normalizes the "Whiteness" of the Jewish/Hebrew people. The groups actually refer to themselves as "Hebrews", "Israelites" and in many cases, "Hebrew-Israelites."
First, note that there are many "black" Jews in Israel that are properly affiliated with Judaism--in all movements--including Orthodoxy. Many were converted generations ago and their descendants deserve the same credibility given to any child born of a Jewish mother-converted or otherwise. Others have come from African communities who have practiced Judaism for ages. In the eyes of Judaism, it is whether you are a Jew, and not your skin color, that matters.
However, in Israel, there are groups calling themselves "Black Hebrews" that are African Americans, not Ethiopian Jews, who moved to Israel in late 60's-early-70's. There is a wide variety of "Black Hebrew" practices in Israel. Some are Torah Israelites, some ascribe to "the whole bible", and some claim they are Torah based. Some of the misunderstandings about the nature of these groups arises from the particularity of African-American religious sensibilities, which themselves arise out of fundamentally different experiences than those of any other American group. Thus, the categorical boundaries that apply to Euro-Americans (i.e., Christian or Jew, Muslim or Christian) cannot be so easily applied to the African-American religious traditions. This partially explains why these groups identify with ancient culture and not the religion of Judaism.
Some groups called "Black Hebrew" Israel (but which are really not) practice a fundamentalist form of Christianity, but do not consider themselves Christians or Jews, but Hebrews, "true" decendants of the "Hebrew race". For example, they fast on Shabbat, and are strict vegetarians, to name a couple of examples. They have a large community in Dimona in the Negev, and they often hold jazz concerts throughout the country. They recently received permanent residency status, and official citizenship is soon to follow.
Many African American Hebrews practice Kashruth, circumcise their male children, observe Shabbat, as well as many other customs. These customs were passed down from their grandparents, although they may not be understood as Jewish at the time. Some in this group grew up practicing all forms of Christianity, some have given such practices up completely, others have mixed Christian practices with Jewish custom. Such African American Hebrew Israelites identify with ancient culture and not the religion of Judaism
In the United States:
Note that according to the Council of Jewish Federations, 2.2% of America's 5.5 million Jews identify themselves as black. There are many observant Black Jews living within American communities in all movements--including Orthodoxy. Many African-Americans were converted generations ago and their descendants deserve the same credibility given to any child born of a Jewish mother-converted or otherwise. In the eyes of Judaism, it is whether you are a Jew, and not your skin color, that matters.
In the United States, some groups of Black Jews use the term "black hebrews". The name is an artifact of the times when white synagogues refused to accept them as Jews.
The FAQ is a collection of documents that is an attempt to answer questions that are continually asked on the soc.culture.jewish family of newsgroups. It was written by cooperating laypeople from the various Judaic movements. You should not make any assumption as to accuracy and/or authoritativeness of the answers provided herein. In all cases, it is always best to consult a competent authority--your local rabbi is a good place to start.
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© (c) 1993-2004
Daniel P. Faigin <firstname.lastname@example.org>