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A nonprofit, independent news source to inform, inspire, educate and connect the St. Louis Jewish community.

St. Louis Jewish Light

A nonprofit, independent news source to inform, inspire, educate and connect the St. Louis Jewish community.

St. Louis Jewish Light

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St. Louis bar mitzvah serves as a bridge between Jews and Hebrew Israelites

(Phillip Deitch)
Dor Tsadik Osher chants from the Torah as his parents Shemohn and Khaya watch, Nov. 18, 2023.

As a boy growing up in Israel, Dor Tsadik Osher didn’t think much about having a bar mitzvah.

He and his family belong to the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem, a spiritual community based in Dimona, in the Negev desert, that practices a Torah-based lifestyle but does not adhere to the strictures of rabbinic Judaism. The youth typically do not celebrate b’nai mitzvahs when they reach the age of 13, instead participating in a rite-of-passage known as “coming in” upon graduating from high school.

But Dor Tsadik, or Dor for short, straddles two worlds: he has both Hebrew Israelite heritage through his father, Shemohn, who is from Dimona, and Jewish heritage through his mother, Khaya, who was raised in an Ashkenazi family in St. Louis.

When his parents gave him the choice months ago to have a bar mitzvah, Dor decided that it was something he wanted to do. So last Shabbat at Central Reform Congregation, he was called to the Torah in a unique ceremony that combined Hebrew Israelite and Jewish customs, as family and friends in Israel, Germany and other places watched via livestream.

Wearing a multicolored African Hebrew Israelite suit sewn by his paternal grandmother, Eliezrah, a crocheted kippah covering his cornrows, and Yeezy shoes, Dor led the Shabbat service and chanted verses from the Torah portion Chayei Sarah.

During his d’var Torah, on the theme of showing respect for others, he acknowledged Ben Ammi Ben Israel, the late spiritual leader of his community who was known as “Abba Gadol,” or “Great Father.” Ben Ammi, Dor said, “taught respect for his people as well as respect for animals and his teachings of living a healthy, vegan lifestyle.” (He preached that veganism was the ideal human diet, based on an interpretation of Genesis 1:29, in which God instructs Adam and Eve to eat plants and fruit.)

Later, the congregation recited Hamotzi over a vegan loaf of bread baked by Larry Mass, Dor’s maternal grandfather and a longtime CRC member and enjoyed a catered vegan lunch of lentils, sweet potatoes, cauliflower in coconut sauce and kale salad. Carrot cake was served for dessert.

“This bar mitzvah leaned more into the CRC way of observing Shabbat, but I love that Dor mentioned Ben Ammi in his d’var Torah and gave us a glimpse of the spiritual life of the Hebrew Israelite community,” CRC Rabbi Randy Fleisher said a day later.

Hebrew Israelites are people of color, mostly African Americans, who identify as descendants of the 12 tribes of Israel but not necessarily as Jews. The community in Israel, which has around 3,000 members (including a handful of non-Black people like Dor’s mother), is not connected to the more radical Hebrew Israelite groups in the United States — though they share the core beliefs that the ancient Israelites were Black and that the transatlantic slave trade was punishment for disobeying God’s laws.

The African Hebrew Israelite community emerged during the social unrest of the 1960s. In February 1966, Ben Ammi, then a 26-year-old factory worker in Chicago, experienced a vision in which the Angel Gabriel appeared and called for African Americans to return to the “promised land.” The following year, he led a few hundred people to Liberia in West Africa. Many eventually returned to the United States, but some continued on to Israel, which they understood to be their ancestral homeland. The Chief Rabbinate never recognized them as Jews, though, and they lived on the margins of society without legal status or the right to work legally for decades.

Today, most are permanent residents, and the youth serve in the Israel Defense Forces. (A number of them are fighting in the current war against Hamas.) There are also satellite communities in the United States, United Kingdom and parts of Africa.

Dor, a member of the third generation of African Hebrew Israelites living in Israel (and the second born there), prepared for his bar mitzvah by studying with Mass, his grandfather, over Zoom. “To see them working together and developing that connection was really nice,” said Khaya Osher, who attended CRC during her childhood. She made aliyah in 2006, having been drawn to the Village of Peace by the residents’ holistic lifestyle. She married Shemohn three years later, and they have three boys, of whom Dor is the eldest.

Whenever the family would travel to St. Louis to visit Osher’s parents, they would spend Shabbat at CRC. The congregation is diverse and includes many Jews of color, according to Fleisher.

Dor’s was actually the third Hebrew Israelite bar or bat mitzvah held at CRC to date. For years, the leadership has cultivated a relationship with the small St. Louis branch of the African Hebrew Israelite community. They have celebrated Passover “diversity seders” together, bonding over the Biblical story of the Israelites’ exodus from slavery.

“Whenever we’re with the Hebrew Israelites, I always feel like we’ve made the family more whole,” Fleisher said. “Every time we connect with another branch of the Jewish family, we learn from each other and we grow.”

Historically, Jews and Hebrew Israelites in the United States have viewed each other with skepticism. An effort to integrate the communities in New York in the 1960s and ’70s, led by the organization Hatzaad Harishon, failed. In December 2019, two people who espoused some Hebrew Israelite beliefs attacked a kosher market in Jersey City, New Jersey, murdering three people. Last year, two Black celebrities — musician Ye and NBA star Kyrie Irving — promoted controversial ideas associated with the Hebrew Israelite movement, including that Black people are the authentic Jews, which some say is antisemitic.

Throughout his bar mitzvah service, Dor recited African proverbs and inspirational quotes by Black NBA players (including Irving) and artists. CRC Rabbi Susan Talve praised him for “keeping this tent open,” referring to the tent of Judaism, and Fleisher led the congregation in a cry of “Hallelujah!” — a commonly-used expression in Dimona.

At the conclusion of the service, Dor and his father performed an elaborate handshake on the bimah, like two basketball players celebrating a victory.

Asked later why he wanted to have a bar mitzvah, Dor said, “To make my grandfather proud and to take on more responsibility in the Jewish community. And for the party.” That party was held at a Center of Clayton, where Dor shot hoops with his brothers and cousins.

Reflecting on her son’s potential to serve as a bridge between Jews and Hebrew Israelites, Osher said, “It will be interesting to see, as he grows up, what part he wants to play.”



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