The Chicagoist will be launching later but in the meantime please enjoy our archives.

Life Inside The Black Hebrew Israelites Of Jerusalem [Part I Of II]

By Ester Alegria in News on Aug 2, 2014 8:00PM

Ben Carter, pictured left, in Chicago before leading disciples to Liberia. (Photo credit: Ester Alegria)

I’m not a religious woman. I was raised a Christian, though, so I know that my mother will never stop dropping not-so-subtle hints about how I should re-evaluate my disbelief. Yet, when I’m in a bad way, my mother’s firm voice and commands to “just pray about it,” sometimes come as a comfort. Maybe it’s because I grew up in that environment, and that’s what I know.

It’s funny how life works that way.

We are taught to believe in certain things, and, even if we stray from those beliefs, we either completely reject, or find solace in, certain elements of said belief system. Like going back to a security blanket.

Cults are the same way.

They make you feel safe and important—like you matter. They give you a sense of security, and mimic the family environment. For as long as I could remember, my mother told me and my siblings horror stories about her time spent in a cult—a cult in which so many of my family members are deeply rooted.

The African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem, or “the Nation,” as my mother called them, is led by Ben Carter from the South Side of Chicago. His Hebrew name, Ben Ammi Ben-Israel, is how he is affectionately called by his followers at the Kingdom of Yah in Dimona, Israel; the place where my mom once lived with her now murdered husband, Yob.

The “saints” there in Dimona, Arad, and in Mitzpe Ramon have been granted permanent residency. Some, like my cousin, join the Israeli army upon turning 18. Many are skilled seamstresses and tradesmen, jobs I’d expect are needed to keep the community afloat. They claim to abstain from drugs and alcohol, and are on a strict vegan diet. My cousin makes an amazing kale salad that rarely bears leftovers.

But this is the view of the “Nation” through my mother’s eyes. Her time there has shaped so much of my life and the lives of my siblings, especially the two eldest, Yob’s children, one of whom was born in Israel before my mother’s hasty escape.

“Years ago, my father had been sick in the Veteran’s hospital. When he got home, he started to study the Bible while recovering. He never read the Bible like that. He must have gotten in contact with someone who was a Black Hebrew Israelite while in the hospital. And soon after, he informed us that we weren’t African-American, we were Hebrew Israelites from one of the ’10 lost tribes’. And my family went deeper into their ideology. My family, originally Catholic, started studying under an ordained rabbi who taught out of a storefront.

My mother traveled to Ethiopia around 1967; I was about 17 years old. She took my young brother and sister with her. They lived there for about a year—I stayed behind. I remember a man named Ben Carter spoke at a meeting on Cottage Grove--he later took over some other small groups of leaders, and took a band of people to Liberia. That turned out pretty bad. And from Liberia, they went to Israel around 1970.

My mom spoke of the air of community there, and her first marriage. I’ve always known she was a very strong woman—a trait that I'd inherited from her. And because of this, we haven’t always had a perfect relationship. But hearing this story in depth has given me a new level of respect for her.

Before leaving America and settling in Dimona, she'd married Yob after a very short courtship. Polygamy is a common occurrence within the sect. I asked her if they'd discussed adding any other women to the marriage, “I told him he could have anybody he wanted, but he couldn't have me. I don't share. I made that clear,” she said.

She continues:

“When we got there, we had to split an apartment with another family. And there was a separate room that they used as the “unclean room” for the women on their cycles. They were trying to keep the laws of Moses. But the corruption came in with the leaders, they were crooks. There was Prince Asiel, and Ben Ammi’s 12 Princes. I think one or two may have died by now, I haven’t kept up.

When I was there, there were five key houses. They would send the people who had the most money to those houses. And Ben Carter got a cut of everything. One of the things that really caught my attention was that the women would go out and work, while the men would study Hebrew.

The “Nation” had a couple trucks that would bring crates of food to the community. The best food went to the five key houses, and the old, dried-out food sat outside for the others to gather. I saw a woman whose husband worked directly for the “Nation” rambling through the food. She shouldn't have had to feed her children that way. She was to be taken care of. I was done with them.

During my time there, I’d only been to one meeting, and at that meeting, Ben Carter told the people to stop reading the Bible. This was a strategic move. Soon enough, they’d be ignorant to what was in it, and he’d be able to tell them whatever he wanted. He was actually pulling his teachings directly from the Bible, setting himself up as the messiah.

A few years back, he actually held a mass wedding of his “saints” mimicking the “marriage of the lamb,” as is noted in the New Testament’s book of Revelation. He was a false Christ. >

And the U.S. government was sending a stipend to the citizens from which Ben Carter demanded a cut, and they were also made to solicit money from their families in the states, so he could get a cut from that as well. Then he and Prince Asiel had some illegal things going on with fake passports, but now I believe Asiel is going to jail now for political reasons. Some of the more malicious crimes involved burying dead bodies in residential areas. Right where we lived! They got busted for that.”

The sect holds a yearly marriage vow renewal celebration, marking the anniversary of the initial "marriage" in the year 2000.

Growing up, I've always heard about the ugly side of the Black Hebrews. But, now, I know that the followers are mainly good people, searching for meaning and trying to find their place in a world that constantly rejects them for the color of their skin. Residents of the Kingdom of Yah join, or are born into the sect, believing that they are in a safe place in which they would be loved and supported—and there is in fact, a great sense of community.

But what lies behind those smiles and murmurings of shalom or todah rabah?

More resources:

Book charts journey from African-American to Hebrew Israelite

"Sister Wife"—Documentary following the lives of a man and his two wives within the Black Hebrew Israelites

Part two continues tomorrow.