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Black Hebrew Israelites leaderless after death

Linda Jones
Special to The Detroit News

Ben Ammi Ben-Israel, spiritual leader of the Black Hebrew Israelite movement, was driven by his belief that America is a hostile place for black Americans and that they should move to Israel, where they would have a better life.

The charismatic former Chicago metalworker told his followers that they are Jews in the "tribal sense" because they are blood descendants of Abraham and the biblical tribe of Judah, and Israel is their ancestral homeland. Hundreds, including followers from Detroit, embraced Ben-Israel's teachings and supported his vision by migrating to Israel and establishing a community in the desert city of Dimona.

On Dec. 29, Ben-Israel died of unknown causes in a hospital in Be'er Sheva, Israel. He was 75. His death sent his followers into mourning and raised concerns about who will take his place and what will become of their community of close to 3,000, which has spawned at least two generations since they began arriving in 1969.

"It's not like he was grooming anybody to replace him," said Lucretia West, a Detroiter who spent five years as a Black Hebrew in the mid-1970s before returning home. "For the past 40-something years, people have been looking to him for guidance on what to do with their lives. Now they don't have that. Everybody that I am talking to from the community wants to know what's going to happen now?"

During the early years of their settlement, when Ben-Israel was more strident in expressing his beliefs and engaging in fierce rhetorical battles with the Israeli authorities who do not accept their claims to Judaism, members of the community faced an uncertain residency status and even deportation. Ben-Israel and a few of the early settlers managed to gain Israeli citizenship, but that status remains elusive for the rest.

Today, the Black Hebrews maintain their American citizenship and have been granted permanent residency status in Israel. As a part of their status, youth are required to participate in the Israeli Army when they reach age 18. They are still concentrated in Dimona, but many have assimilated into the greater Israeli society. Others have moved back to the states because they were critical of what they felt was inauthentic and heavy-handed leadership, and harsh discipline of those who did not do Ben-Israel's will.

While there has been no official word about future plans, several community members said that meetings are taking place to explore options.

"Everybody is still grieving right now. Nobody can believe that he is gone," said Barakeyah baht Israel, 29, who was born and raised in Dimona, but recently moved to the United States to satisfy her curiosity about American life.

Her father, Shlomo ben Israel, formerly Byron Boyd of Dallas, still lives in Israel, but supports her decision to experience America for herself. Ben-Israel was not supportive, however, she said. He told her that life in America "would be hell" and he banished her from the Black Hebrew community where she was born. Baht Israel, who now lives in Atlanta with her sister, admits experiencing some culture shock in adjusting to America's fast pace and different lifestyle, but is willing to give it more time.

Although, she said she was hurt by Ben-Israel's reaction, her affection for him was not diminished.

"His vision and his lifestyle is all that I know," she said. "Although people leave the community, the community never leaves them."