Rabbi Tamar Manasseh speaks at her ordination at Beth Shalom B'nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation in Chicago, July 2021. (Photo/Courtesy Brad Rothschild)
Rabbi Tamar Manasseh speaks at her ordination at Beth Shalom B'nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation in Chicago, July 2021. (Photo/Courtesy Brad Rothschild)

In ‘Rabbi on the Block,’ meet the first woman to become a Hebrew Israelite rabbi

Updated July 18

“If the Jewish community ever wanted to have a relationship with the Black community, I am the bridge that they would want to cross to get there,” Rabbi Tamar Manasseh says in the new documentary “Rabbi on the Block.”

Manasseh is the indefatigable anti-violence activist in Chicago whose story has been told in numerous articles, as well as in “They Ain’t Ready for Me,” a documentary that played at the virtual San Francisco Jewish Film Festival in 2020. (A striking photo of Manasseh wearing a T-shirt in the colors of the Pan-African flag and “Shebrew” on it graced the cover of J. in July 2020.)

It turns out that Manasseh — and director Brad Rothschild — have more to say. A lot more.

SFJFF will present the world premiere of “Rabbi on the Block” at San Francisco’s Vogue Theater on Saturday, July 29. The screening will be followed by a Q&A with Manasseh and Rothschild at the theater and then a Havdalah service a block away at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco.

“There’s almost like an unlimited number of films you can make about her because she’s such a dynamic human being,” Rothschild said in a recent Zoom interview from his home in New York City. “It was almost like, well, where do you stop?”

While “They Ain’t Ready for Me” focused on Manasseh’s violence prevention work with her organization Mothers/Men Against Senseless Killings, “Rabbi on the Block” charts her spiritual journey.

Her mother, Everloyce McCullough, speaks in the film about “reverting” to Judaism after “shopping” for her true identity. “It’s like you try on different suits of clothes and they just don’t fit, and I knew what did fit,” McCullough says. (Her brother, David, was the one who introduced her to the idea that the family’s roots went back to ancient Israel.)

McCullough joined Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation, a predominantly African American congregation in Chicago, and sent Manasseh to Akiba-Schechter Jewish Day School. She was one of several African Americans at the school, which had a diverse student body.

“Jewish day school ensured that I would never be the same as anybody,” Manasseh, 44, says in the film. The bus ride between her South Side home in an economically depressed area and her school in the affluent Hyde Park neighborhood provided its own kind of education.

“I saw the positive things about each group,” she says about Black Chicagoans and white, Jewish Chicagoans. “If I only took away all of the bad stuff, I wouldn’t be able to do what I do now.”

Years later, she would send her own children to Akiba-Schechter Jewish Day School. But her son, Max, had a very different experience than she did. Manasseh says he was subjected to racist remarks by students and a teacher. The film briefly touches on the 2012 lawsuit she brought against the school for forcing Max out after seventh grade; she eventually dropped the suit.

Following her daughter Avriel’s bat mitzvah, Manasseh enrolled in the rabbinical school operated by the International Israelite Board of Rabbis, a Hebrew Israelite organization. At the time, women in that organization were not permitted to become rabbis, yet Manasseh wanted to show her Torah whiz daughter that anything was possible. Rabbi Capers Funnye, the Israelite Board’s chief rabbi since 2016, gave her his blessing to enroll.

Five years into her studies, however, the board still had not changed its stance. So Manasseh threw herself into her organizing work. She built an open-air community center on a vacant lot in the Englewood neighborhood of Chicago. She also created opportunities for Black people and Jews to interact and, as she puts it, “just be people, not be Black, not be Jewish, just be people.”

Funnye eventually lost patience with the Israelite Board and decided to ordain Manasseh himself. “I literally got fed up with her being called ‘student rabbi’ for so long, knowing that she was doing the work of what a rabbi does: to care, to protect, to counsel,” he says in the film. “She does all of those things every day on the block.”

Still from 'Rabbi On The Block' (Photo/Courtesy Brad Rothschild)
Rabbi Tamar Manasseh at a Yom Kippur break-fast held at her open-air community center. (Photo/Courtesy Brad Rothschild)

The ceremony took place at Beth Shalom in July 2021, and Rothschild was on hand to capture the historic moment. He told J. he wants audiences to watch the synagogue scenes and note how similar they are to the scenes that play out in their own synagogues. “It just felt very welcoming and extremely Jewish,” he said.

About her ordination, Manasseh says, “I had to wait on my community to catch up with the rest of the Jewish world.”

For viewers who may be confused by her conflation of Hebrew Israelites and Jews, here is some context that is largely missing from the film: Hebrew Israelism, sometimes referred to as Black Judaism, is a spiritual movement that exists outside of mainstream Judaism. Some Israelite congregations, such as Beth Shalom, wish to be seen as part of the Jewish world, while others do not. (Beth Shalom is not connected to more radical Hebrew Israelite groups known for their anti-white and antisemitic rhetoric.)

Most Israelites are not considered Jewish according to halachah, or Jewish law, and most Israelite clergy are not recognized as rabbis in Jewish spaces. Last year, a Conservative synagogue in New Jersey hired two Israelite clergy, a move the Rabbinical Assembly denounced. Manasseh views such gatekeeping as racist. “I think that the [white] Ashkenazi Jewish community has a problem with seeing Black Jews as equals,” she says.

In a statement Lexi Leban, executive director of the Jewish Film Institute (which presents the SFJFF), called Manasseh “a leader who embodies Jewish values through her actions and impact.”

Rothschild has become very close with Manasseh since they started working on “They Ain’t Ready for Me” in 2017, and he hasn’t ruled out the possibility of a third film.

“I’ve had this idea for a few years now that I want to take Tamar to Israel and make a film about her exploration of Black Israel,” he said. (One of his previous films, “African Exodus,” is a documentary about African asylum seekers in Tel Aviv.) The biggest challenge, he said, will be convincing Manasseh to leave the block for more than a few days.

What does Manasseh hope to achieve by publicly sharing so many parts of her life?

“I’d like for American Judaism to be based on good deeds and good works,” she says in the film, “and not what you look like.”

“Rabbi on the Block”

(88 minutes) 2:25 p.m. Saturday, July 29 at Vogue Theater, 3290 Sacramento St., S.F. Preceded by the short film “Periphery” (27 minutes) and followed by “Soul Vey Havdalah” — presented by Value Culture, the Jewish Film Institute and the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco — at the JCCSF, 3200 California St. $23 for screening and Havdalah, $10 for Havdalah only.


Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Manasseh received payment from Akiba-Schechter Jewish Day School after she sued the school.

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.