Commandment Keepers in Harlem

July 8, 2012

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 Nigerian-born Rabbi Wentworth Arthur Matthew (pictured), who believe that people of Ethiopian descent represent one of the lost tribes of Israel. They claim King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba as their ancestors, and believe the biblical patriarchs to have been black.

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 black but it has always had white 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 Holyday services.

The congregation is featured in a scene from the 1970 motion picture The Angel Levine which starred Harry Belafonte and Zero Mostel.

In 1973, Matthew died, creating an interior conflict over who would be the new leader. David Matthew Doré, who was 16 years old at the time, was named 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. 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. 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.The ruling was overturned on July 9, 2007. 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. As of 2011, Doré’s suit against the buyer and the individual who claimed authority to sell the historic landmark was pending.

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

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