(From left) J. Digital Editor David A.M. Wilensky and J. Culture Editor Andrew Esensten at the wedding of Aminah Ha Rofah and
Micael Ben Shaleahk.
(From left) J. Digital Editor David A.M. Wilensky and J. Culture Editor Andrew Esensten at the wedding of Aminah Ha Rofah and Micael Ben Shaleahk.

Why we covered a Hebrew Israelite wedding

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On Oct. 17, a couple got married in Davis. A typical wedding would not be cover-worthy news at J., but the couple who wed are members of the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem, a community based in Dimona, Israel, with adherents around the world. J.’s editors saw the union of Micael Ben Shaleahk and Aminah Ha Rofah as a unique opportunity to provide a glimpse inside a “Jewish adjacent” community that many may not be familiar with.

Yet some readers found our coverage of the wedding to be strange, even offensive. They protested that Hebrew Israelites are antisemitic, that they are non-Jewish cultural appropriators who are trying to “erase” halachic Jews by claiming descent from the ancient Israelites — and that, therefore, we should not write about them. One person commented on Facebook, “I don’t understand why you would glorify a cult with an antisemtic reputation for a Jewish mag, a polygamous male-dominated cult no less.”

For over a decade, I’ve been researching and publishing articles about Hebrew Israelites in Jewish publications. I know this is a sensitive topic for Jewish readers, one that raises hard questions about identity, authenticity, race and communal boundaries. It is also a topic that requires readers to keep an open mind. There are extremists in the Hebrew Israelite movement, just as there are in every religious and spiritual movement, and unfortunately those extremists have largely shaped the public narrative about who Hebrew Israelites are and how they feel about Jews.

For the record: The African Hebrew Israelites — those who, like Micael and Aminah, follow the teachings of spiritual leader Ben Ammi Ben Israel — are not antisemitic, cultural-appropriating cultists who are trying to erase Jews. Most live in Israel, where their youth serve in the Israel Defense Forces. They attend Israeli schools and intermarry with Jews. They may have beliefs and customs such as the practice of polygamy that some Jews find uncomfortable or even repellent, but they are not trying to erase Jews or do us harm.

Meanwhile, Jews of color feel that coverage of Hebrew Israelites often comes at their expense. They grumble when the media shine a spotlight on Hebrew Israelites and ignore their stories and concerns. As UC Davis sociologist Bruce Haynes put it to me, “Normative Black Jews like [Forward editor] Robin Washington are not as sexy as Hebrew Israelites who curse at the Capitol Mall.”

Moreover, Jews of color already struggle to be accepted in Jewish spaces, and some argue that coverage of Hebrew Israelites in the Jewish press makes that process even more challenging because the groups can become conflated in people’s minds.

So why, given these fault lines, did we report on Micael and Aminah’s wedding? Because at J., we are tasked with exploring our Northern California Jewish community in all its complexity. It’s why we regularly write about Jews from every denomination, and no denomination. It’s why we have reported extensively on Karaite Jews, who have a community center in Daly City. And it’s why we cover non-Jewish religious communities that are connected to us in some way. For example, we recently wrote about a Messianic Jewish synagogue in Carmichael that was plastered with antisemitic flyers. We did so not because we accept Messianic Jews as being inside of our proverbial tent, but rather because as two small religious minorities in proximity to each other, we sometimes face similar challenges, from antisemites in particular.

The Bay Area is full of communities of people who follow different lifestyles and traditions. J. is a Jewish community newspaper, but Jews are not an island. In order to understand our place in the larger society to which we belong, we at J. believe it is important to understand the place of communities like ours, communities like the African Hebrew Israelites.

Andrew Esensten
Andrew Esensten

Andrew Esensten is the culture editor of J. Previously, he was a staff writer for the English-language edition of Haaretz based in Tel Aviv. Follow him on Twitter @esensten.