Being Black and Jewish during the High Holidays

by: Jennifer Wright Special to the AFRO
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This week, Sept. 20-22, marked Rosh Hashana, one of the most important holidays in Judaism, and Yom Kippur, the other major holiday, will be observed Sept. 29-30. As one of the world’s largest religions, having approximately 13.9 million followers according to World Atlas, it’s safe to say that this religion has followers from all across the globe and different ethnic groups across the country.

Congregation of African-American Jews in Philadelphia during a Torah dedication ceremony at Beth’El Synagogue. (Photo: AP)

What it is like to be Black and Jewish?   To find out about the “Black Jewish Experience,” the AFRO interviewed two members of the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, Heber Watts and James Phelps.

AFRO: “Were you raised Jewish or did you convert?”

Heber Watts (HW): “When I was 8 years old, we moved into an orthodox neighborhood and I converted when I went to college.”

James Phelps (JP): “I was raised Jewish. My mother’s Jewish.”

AFRO: “What does being both Black and Jewish mean to you?”

HW: “That’s interesting. I think the two go together very well. Studying scripture gave me a better understanding of the issue of slavery. It was an issue where Jews and African Americans were on the same side all the way up to the Civil Rights Movement. I guess I’ve always felt comfortable in Judaism. I’ve been a member of Baltimore Hebrew [Congregation] well over 40 years.”

JP: “I was very much religious in my childhood; we went to temple. [But] where we lived at and where the temple was was a little bit of a distance, so weren’t able to do the traditional walking to synagogue on Fridays and Saturdays. It didn’t seem different to me. You had some people like, ‘Wow, you are Jewish.’ I never felt like my Judaism limited me. I lived my life the way it was. I didn’t eat seafood or pork or milk with meat, but that was my lifestyle and I was around people who were very openminded about it. So, it didn’t seem like anything different to me because that’s all I knew. I didn’t get questioned [about Judaism] until college and no one really questioned it. It was more, ‘That’s different, but it is what it is.’ But many do assume Blacks are just Christians…it’s where most African Americans fit in….

AFRO: “With both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur being celebrated this month, what do these holidays mean to you? And does each Jewish subculture celebrate it differently, or is it more traditional for everyone?”

HW: “There’s differences whether or not you are Orthodox, Conservative or like a Baltimore Hebrew member, Reformed. There is a difference in the way the holidays are celebrated. Orthodox will carry Rosh Hashanah for two days. Reformed only carries it, really one day—the night before and the holiday the following day. I’m sure there are some differences in celebration according to nationality and whether you are Ashkenazi, which tends to be more European, or Sephardic, which is Middle Eastern.”

JP: “These holidays are seen as a time of reflection…. the time to close the books on last year and open the book on a new year. It’s like the New Year, in a way, where everyone says they are going to try to do something different this year than they did last year. You want to be better, you want to enhance yourself. That’s how I see the holidays. It’s like a rebirth.”

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