African American man speaking into a microphone
Henry Bens delivering a sermon at Congregation Rehoboth in Alameda on Oct. 29, 2022. (Photo/Screenshot-@biblesvoice)

Teacher who assigned antisemitic text preaches controversial Hebrew Israelite doctrine

Henry Bens Jr., the English teacher who was placed on administrative leave by the Hayward Unified School District this week after J. reported that he had assigned an antisemitic text to students and repeatedly made “Heil Hitler” salutes in class, has a second calling: as a pastor.

Each week at Congregation Rehoboth, a predominantly African American church in Alameda, Bens gives sermons and teaches Bible study classes. But he is not delivering mainstream Christian homilies.

A J. review of the more than 40 sermons and classes that were available on his YouTube channel as of Friday morning reveals that Bens has been heavily influenced by Black Israelism, the spiritual movement grounded in the idea that Black people are the authentic genealogical descendants of the ancient Israelites.

Hebrew Israelites — often referred to as Black Hebrew Israelites, though they do not call themselves by this term, and not all are Black — have received intense media attention in recent months after two Black celebrities, musician Ye (aka Kanye West) and the NBA player Kyrie Irving, shared some of the more controversial elements of Israelite doctrine with their millions of social media followers.

“We don’t believe in Jewish religion,” Bens, 52, said during a Bible class he gave on Nov. 8. “There’s no such thing in the Bible as Jewish religion.” He went on to say that Jewish people are simply “acting like” Jews but are not, in fact, Jews.

During a sermon on Oct. 29, he shared the debunked theory that Ashkenazi Jews are descendants of the Khazars, a Turkic people who converted to Judaism, and claimed that there was a conspiracy to prevent Black people from knowing their true identity. “I believe not only have we lost our identity, because we have not kept holiness, but there is a cover-up that I’m uncovering,” he told the congregation. “I’m uncovering it. Join me in uncovering it.”

Bens often refers to Black people as “so-called Blacks,” and in a Dec. 10 class, he said he finds the term “African American” to be offensive.

“For you to allow someone to call you ‘African American’ does not tell you anything about your identity,” he said. “It tells you absolutely nothing. It’s basically saying you’re a continent. And so, as a result, we call ourselves African American, many of us, until we’ve come to realize that we are not African American, but indeed, we are Israelites.” He added that he and members of his congregation have done DNA tests proving a connection to the ancient Israelites. (Current direct-to-consumer genetic tests can indicate certain kinds of Jewish ancestry but cannot definitively prove a connection to people who lived in Biblical times.)

In the same class, Bens cited the 28th chapter of Deuteronomy, a key text in Black Israelism. The chapter contains a list of curses that God will inflict upon the children of Israel for their disobedience, and many Hebrew Israelites point to the enslavement and plight of Black people in the United States as proof of their Israelite heritage. “You can match each and every one of those curses with what our ancestors have gone through, and what we’re going through today,” Bens said.

In recent weeks, Bens has also publicly expressed support for Ye, who went on an extended antisemitic campaign last year, as well as for Irving and Ronald Dalton Jr., the Hebrew Israelite director of the film that Irving promoted on social media on Oct. 27.

During a sermon at Rehoboth on Oct. 22, Bens said he liked a comment Ye made in an interview about how the real antisemites are those who make music degrading Black people, who are “the real semites.”

In a Nov. 6 post on his Instagram account, which he set to private mode this week, Bens shared the cover art for “Hebrews to Negroes: Wake Up Black America,” with the caption, “Oh, is this the link Kyrie posted? Good looking bruh! Big Ron, much love!” The film contains sundry antisemitic claims, including that Jews are imposters and that they orchestrated the slave trade. (After he initially refused to apologize for promoting the film, Irving was suspended for eight games by the team he played for at the time, the Brooklyn Nets.)

Born and raised in Los Angeles, Bens studied at Biola University, an evangelical Christian university in Southern California, and San Francisco State University, from which he earned a master of education in 2010, according to his LinkedIn profile. He has been involved at Congregation Rehoboth since 2008. When J. called the phone number listed on the congregation’s Facebook page this week, Bens picked up. “I have no comment at this time,” he said after this reporter identified himself, and then hung up.

On tax filings, the congregation is known as Rehoboth Christian Fellowship Church. A former pastor there, Antoine Miller, told J. the congregation took “a radical turn” after Miller was forced from his pulpit after 23 years by Bens and his supporters in April 2018.

“I think it was important for him to remove the ‘Christian’ from the fellowship [name],” Miller said. “He was looking for a more Hebraic type feel.”

Asked if Bens ever expressed antisemitic views in his presence, Miller replied that he did not.

Although they were close for years, Miller said Bens told him that he was no longer fit to serve the Rehoboth community because he was going through a divorce. Miller said he found this ironic, since Bens himself was divorced at the time; he has since remarried. After Miller left the church (he now runs his own church in Stockton), Bens moved the day of worship from Sunday to Saturday, in accordance with Jewish custom. Congregants started celebrating Jewish holidays and using Hebrew terms, including Torah, parashah and Shabbat. Male community members can be seen wearing tzitzit, ritual fringes, in photos on the congregation’s Facebook page.

“Whatever Moses instituted, I think they’re trying to follow,” Miller said. Still, the congregation has retained elements of its Baptist origins, including referring to Jesus (or Yeshua, as Bens calls him in his sermons) as the messiah. The name of God that Bens uses in his sermons — Yah — is especially popular among Hebrew Israelites.

During a Dec. 18 class on the origins of Hanukkah, Bens admitted that he is still learning how to practice a Torah-based lifestyle. “We are definitely growing in our knowledge and understanding of the Torah,” he said. “And at this point, this is where we are. And so the Lord Yah, Abba Yah, sees us reaching toward him. And I believe that the more we keep Torah, he will reveal more to us.”

The Hebrew Israelite spiritual movement arose in the late 19th century in the American South, and today there are hundreds of congregations around the world, including in the Bay Area. They exist along a wide spectrum of beliefs and attitudes toward Jews; some are considered antisemitic hate groups by watchdog organizations such as the Southern Poverty Law Center, while others resemble more mainstream Jewish congregations in their religious practice. (Last year, a Conservative synagogue in Newark, New Jersey, hired two Israelite clergy, though not without controversy.) There is also a sizable community in Israel.

One of the most active groups of “radical” Hebrew Israelites, Israel United in Christ, has outposts, or “schools,” in Antioch-Pittsburg, Oakland, Sacramento, San Jose and Stockton, according to its website. Miller said members of IUIC can often be seen demonstrating in front of Black churches in Oakland and Stockton and “challenging the people [inside] to come and learn the truth about themselves.”

The Rev. Amos Brown, the president of the NAACP’s S.F. branch and pastor at Third Baptist Church, condemned the extremist fringe of Hebrew Israelites.

Man in suit
The Rev. Amos Brown

“I think any movement that’s toxic, divisive and mean-spirited needs to check itself,” he told J. “We ought to be about being community builders, building up not tearing down. You don’t need to tear down someone else in order to build yourself up.”

As for the claim that Black people are the authentic descendants of the Israelites, Brown said, “We all came from the same place, the rift valley on the continent of Africa. All cultures are just different ways of doing things, but no culture has any superior position over the other.”

Separate from his Hebrew Israelite beliefs, Bens appears to have a fascination with Hitler. He has told his high school students that he would have liked to meet and interview Hitler, as J. reported earlier this week, and he often brings up Hitler in his sermons and classes at Congregation Rehoboth. 

During a Nov. 8 Bible class about “the Biblical function of the family,” Bens said God made everyone special, “every single human, even Hitler, even the worst criminals that you can think about. Yah made them redeemable because He loves everyone. Hallelujah!”

Then on Dec. 6, while discussing how the American school system has “indoctrinated” students, he said, “You think Hitler is evil, but you honor Veterans Day, who — those [American] men and women were used to do the same thing that Hitler did.”

Hayward Unified School District is currently investigating student complaints against Bens, and his future at Mt. Eden is uncertain. What is certain is that he believes the public education system is failing students — and that he holds the truth that can save them.

“I teach children every day,” he told the congregation during the Dec. 6 class. “They believe they’re inferior. They believe they can’t read, they believe they can’t think, they believe they can’t have a critical mind. They believe it. You know why they believe it? Because we sent them to be educated by an institution that was created in this country not to teach them to be critical thinkers, but to teach them the ways of wickedness.”

He continued, “But if your son or daughter comes through my class, they’re gonna hear a different narrative. They’re gonna hear truth, unfiltered. My filter is broken. I threw it away a long time ago.”

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.