The lost and found tribe

Inside the African Hebrew Israelite community of Dimona.

MEMBERS OF the AHI community in East London, South Africa, with Dimona community leader, Minister Ahmadiel Ben Yehuda (the tallest) in the center. (photo credit: Courtesy)
MEMBERS OF the AHI community in East London, South Africa, with Dimona community leader, Minister Ahmadiel Ben Yehuda (the tallest) in the center.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Much is said in the way of mythology about the African Hebrew Israelite (AHI) community of Dimona.
The community’s closed nature has only served to perpetuate these myths.
It has been written that they are a cult; that they are cut off from the rest of Israel and from practicing Jews; that they are a prophetic people awakening African Americans around the world; and that they are continuing the work of their spiritual leader, Ben-Ammi Ben-Israel. Much is still shrouded in mystery, but I embarked on an educational journey with no preconceived notions about the AHI community for the purposes of this article. I spoke with community leaders and emerged with a greater understanding of who they are, what they have been through and what they hope the future holds.
The African Hebrew Israelite community of Dimona celebrate Nasik Hashalom Family Day. (YouTube/ Benhalahliel Mercer)
One must begin at the beginning, and for the AHI community of Dimona, the beginning is Ben-Ammi (members of the group generally are referred to only by their first names, and this custom is followed throughout this article). As a young African American named Ben Carter growing up in Chicago in the 1960s, Ben-Ammi became connected to the burgeoning AHI community there, and in 1966, according to the community, received a vision from the Angel Gabriel that his mission was “to lead the Children of Israel among African Americans to the Promised Land.” In 1967, Ben-Ammi went to Liberia, accompanied by approximately 400 AHI community members from Chicago. They went first to Liberia because in their reading of the prophecies, they believed they should return to Israel in the same way that they had originally left.
“We all knew that we left via West Africa during the slave trade,” says Dimona community leader Minister Ahmadiel Ben Yehuda (“minister” is a communal rather than a religious title).
“Liberia’s constitution required that they open their doors to any African Americans who wanted to return. That was our wilderness experience; leaving a modern Egypt. We could not return to Israel in a state of still being slaves. In other words, because of the degradation that had been heaped on us, we didn’t love ourselves, so there was no way that we could love one another, which would certainly be a requirement for building a community. We had to unlearn many of the things that had been taught to us in America. It was a two-and-a-half-year process in Liberia.”
By 1969, only 138 AHI community members remained. Some died along the way and the majority could not withstand the harsh living conditions and returned to America. Tickets to Israel were purchased from the proceeds of two ice cream shops that had been established for the group’s benefit. In 1970, the small group made their way to Israel for the first time. This would later be called the first wave. At that time, they were able to enter the land under the Law of Return. This would later change and subsequent waves of AHI community members would have a much more difficult time entering and remaining in Israel.
“Ben-Ammi is the messianic personage of this dispensation of time,” explains Ahmadiel. “Historically, if you go back in Hebrew culture, the idea of moshiach was not isolated to one individual, unlike the Christian interpretation. Ben-Ammi was simply given the task to bring us back into this land. In doing that, he ushered in the messianic age. From this point, in our reading of prophecy, we are no longer expecting individual messianic personages.
“Ben-Ammi’s mission was to raise up the messianic people. He was not trying to be a universal savior; his mission was for the children of Israel. In his 50 years of servitude to us, he accomplished that mission and we are now well established in this land. We embody the messianic lifestyle in a tangible sense, not up in the sky or in the hereafter. We are thankful for his presence. In a very real sense, we are Ben-Ammi.”
The AHI community of Dimona grew over time, and now numbers about 3,000 members. There have been many waves of those claiming AHI affiliation from America since the first one, but it took 20 years before they were granted permanent residency by the Israeli government. Those 20 years, from 1970 to 1990, were fraught with tension between Dimona community members and the government. Many in the AHI community came after renouncing their US citizenship, so that they would not be sent back. At one point, the Israeli government offered to give the Dimona community members citizenship if they would convert under Halachic law, but they refused.
“Our coming to Israel was one of the most amazing events in history,” Dimona community leader Minister Kazriel adds. “For us to leave America and claim that we have found our ancient heritage; we’re the only group to have done this. Eventually, an agreement was made between the two governments and us, after many years of conflict and abuse. One thing we absolutely would not do is convert to Judaism.”
The belief was that if they converted, it would mean that they were not who they claimed to be in the first place: the descendants of the original Israelites. AHI community members do not claim to be Jewish. In fact, they eschew organized religion and see it as the cause of the great evils of the world. But they believe that as descendants of the ancient Israelites, they have an obligation to live in Israel and be a light unto the nations.
They do this in many ways. The community is entirely vegan and sustainable. Maintaining a vegan diet is a way of returning to the Garden of Eden, to the time before humans were given animals to eat, a time even before the laws of kashrut, which as one community leader explained, were the laws for a fallen people. A messianic people doesn’t need them. While the majority of AHI adults are in monogamous marriages, a minority of men have multiple wives. It is important to emphasize that this is a choice on the part of everyone involved.
IN TERMS of ritual practice, there are similarities between the AHI community and those of religious Jews.
They observe the Sabbath on Saturday as a day of rest, when they refrain from working and using electricity.
The day is typically spent talking, studying, reading and spending time with family – but instead of gathering around the table for celebratory meals, community members 13 and older fast.
“Biblically, it says that we are created from the minerals of the soil, and that’s verifiable by calcium and iron being present in our bodies,” Ahmadiel states. “There’s a synergy that man has with the land. The land was given a sabbatical year of rest, based on the cycles of seven.
We cannot fast for an entire year, but if you fast on the Sabbath, over the course of seven years, you will have fasted a total of one year if you include Yom Kippur.”
Holidays like Sukkot, Shavuot and Passover are observed in a similar fashion to that of religious Jews. But in Dimona, the New World Passover is also celebrated, which commemorates the day when Ben-Ammi first came to Israel to survey the land. It is a day marked as the community’s coming out of modern captivity and back into the Promised Land. Every year, there are two full days of celebration and a week of preliminary events, with many visitors from around the world. The two days consist of feasting and family activities. They also observe what they call the memorial Passover and maintain the tradition of the Seder plate.
“We can imagine what it was like in captivity in Egypt, but we have a much more vivid perspective of the modern captivity we came from,” Ahmadiel says.
Marital relations are forbidden on the Sabbath and all other holy days for the Dimona community. After a man ejaculates, he is impure for 24 hours and cannot enter into holy places. There is also a seven-day period when the woman is menstruating, where sexual relations are forbidden, similar to the law of nidda for religious Jews. But in Hebrew Israelite tradition, the woman also does not prepare food during that time, and mainly rests.
The AHI community does not observe Purim or Hanukka. They also count their days differently than religious Jews. They start counting on the Sabbath, so that Shavuot is always on a Sunday. Rosh Hashana is observed as Shabbaton Zichron Hatrua, the memorial of the blowing of the trumpets. The Hebraic new year for Dimona’s AHI community is the first day of the month of Aviv.
“Because of all of this, we have our differences with the Ministry of Interior and with the rabbinate,” Ahmadiel adds. “They don’t recognize us as Jews, and that’s fine. We don’t recognize the rabbinate.”
Of the three community members I interviewed for this article, all came to Israel on their own after meeting someone from the AHI Dimona community in America.
Moreh Kananyah came to Israel from Chicago five years ago. Kananyah grew up in a rough area. While attending community college, he began to learn about African American identity and history. He was on a quest to find himself. Kananyah’s family was not religious, but he was always curious about the Bible. Previous attempts to study it had failed because he felt the language wasn’t speaking to him. But then someone gave him a Bible with more updated language. He read it over and over, unable to put it down. “I began to question where we fit into the stories,” Kananyah relates.
“I really didn’t understand Judaism. Chicago is a very segregated city, so I didn’t grow up around Jews. I was asking questions like, “Who are these people?” I was reading all the prophecies. I knew our people had something to do with this book. We had to have some place in it.” As luck or divine providence would have it, Kananyah met a woman from Dimona shortly thereafter.
She introduced him to the writings of Ben-Ammi and encouraged him on his journey.
“She saw me trying to be a vegetarian and told me that she was from Dimona and had been a vegetarian for 25 years. I didn’t know what Dimona was and I would have had difficulty pointing Israel out on a map. So, I really didn’t know what she was saying, but I nodded my head. She was pretty persistent that she saw something in me, but it was only after she gave me books written by Ben-Ammi that I really took it seriously.
I turned to the back cover and saw his face. I knew that this was the man I’d been looking for. I had heard a video of him speaking just before that and the rest is history. I saw that it was something prophetic.
That’s why I’m here.”
Ahmadiel came to Israel from Washington, DC. He was raised in a fairly well-off family and attended private schools most of his life. In the late ’60s, during high school, he became rebellious, stemming from what he terms his awakening to the realities of race in America.
“I became very angry. It poisoned me for awhile, even against my own grandmother, because she was white. In retrospect, it was very foolish, but I was driven internally to have that kind of outward disposition.
That remains a dynamic in the global affairs of humanity – this race issue.”
Ahmadiel has been published multiple times in The Jerusalem Post and Haaretz regarding his views on various racial incidents. He is also completing a chapter in an upcoming book for the International Society for the Study of African Judaism.
“My position is that the whole paradigm for the way anthropologists and ethnographers approach the African Hebrew Israelites is false because they operate under the assumption that the ancient Israelites were white,” he states. “That’s just not true, it can’t be true.
If that’s your starting paradigm, the question in looking at us is always going to be, what made us come in this direction, change or adopt? It’s anything but that we can really be the descendants of the biblical Israelites.
I don’t have a lot of patience for that. For us, being Israelites means projecting light from Israel in a time when we see great darkness in the world. There have to be solutions to the problems humanity faces. For us, that light is not found in start-ups, military prowess or economics. It’s found in a social/cultural organization that includes diet and lifestyle.”
While pursuing political science and law at American University, Ahmadiel worked briefly on Capitol Hill. Hoping to find a channel for correcting the many issues of racial injustice in the US, he found hypocrisy and inefficiency instead. In 1975, he went to visit his girlfriend in Detroit. Her brother-in-law was a member of the AHI community there. He connected with community members and attended classes, which planted a seed. In 1977, he began looking for an AHI community in the DC area. He found representatives from Dimona who had been sent there to establish a presence. In 1978 he came to visit Israel for the first time, and in 1980 he packed up everything and moved permanently.
“We were revolutionary because we were engaged in a very intense struggle with the State of Israel,” Ahmadiel recalls. “America was very much in collusion with that.
Some of us were involved in what would be called revolutionary or even criminal activities. For me, they were just what we had to do, no more than Menachem Begin did what he had to do as a freedom fighter. We practiced illegal immigration, got false passports, so that we could get in this land. We were persona non grata. We didn’t have work permits, health care or access to schooling.
That was a very intense time until 1990.”
Ahmadiel, along with many AHI community members living in Dimona, gave up a tremendous amount to come to Israel. He was out of touch with his family for 11 years. When he initially presented his well-crafted argument to his father about why he was leaving for Dimona, his father remained unconvinced. Eventually, his father came to take great pride in what he was doing in Dimona. Ahmadiel does not necessarily believe that his family needs to follow him, but he does believe that prophetically, America has destruction on the horizon.
“It’s like the days of Noah, or ancient Egypt. Many regions that rose to great heights economically and militarily, there was always a calling out before the destruction.
That calling out was not for everyone, I just hope with my family to be understood.”
ANOTHER OF Dimona’s community leaders, Kazriel, came to Israel from Detroit. He describes being very disgruntled with the education system and feeling that it was not designed to make African American men successful. So he dropped out at an early age and turned to crime and drugs. He recalls that his aunt had a friend in Dimona, and that she was also planning to move to Israel.
“She asked if I wanted to come and introduced me to a minister from the community,” he recalls. “His aura was like nothing I had ever seen before. I was not religious, but I was a young man wanting to find his way to success, and something about this minister resonated with me. I went to Israel and I was blown away, but I was afraid of it, too. These men and women were very committed and purposeful, and I didn’t know if I had the discipline to follow this lifestyle. I knew it was correct, I just didn’t know if I was ready to be that righteous.”
He went back to America, and after a particularly trying incident, prayed that if God would help him, he would change his life. He immediately called his aunt and told her he was ready to come back to Israel. Kazriel moved to Dimona in 1975, where he has lived ever since.
Immediately upon arriving, he went to a school built by fellow community members. He was 18 at the time and received his high-school diploma. He then married.
“The community is founded on the strength of family, so it’s very common for young men to marry early,” he relates. “It’s a very democratic process. We have meetings with a community elder who teaches us about the responsibilities of marriage. There is a strong preparation involved before you can actually get married. Men need to be committed to the idea of true worship. The man is the head of the family and his responsibility is to provide proper nourishment – mental, physical and monetary.”
The death of Ben-Ammi in 2014 was a turning point for the Dimona community and for the worldwide AHI movement. If the rumors of a cult-like following were true, the community might not have survived the loss. But they have flourished. Looking toward the future, they are hopeful that they can continue to be an influence on the rest of Israel in terms of living a vegan lifestyle. Their children serve proudly in the IDF and in that way, they are integrating more and more into Israeli life.
In terms of the global AHI community, many are still in Africa, as well as spread across America. Traveling abroad is important to the Dimona community, in order to connect with satellite communities worldwide.
They teach about the benefits of a vegan diet and organic agriculture, as well as no longer looking to the West as something to be emulated.
“There is more to the story of the Lost Tribes,” Kananyah says. “We are establishing the Kingdom of God on earth. The migration to this land was part of a prophetic vision, of not only reestablishing a nation in Israel, but a part of the process of the redemption of the world. To be a part of the Lost Tribes of Israel is to be a redeemer. Anyone who claims Hebrew descent has to come from that perspective. It’s not just about heredity or having a lineage to a people of antiquity.
It’s about being connected to a culture that’s redemptive and that will bring forth a global change. Anything else is mundane.”
Initiatives like ITribe, started by Rabbi Harry Rozenberg, aim to connect AHI communities from around the world. Rozenberg, who has been working in the field of the Lost Tribes for 10 years, created ITribe as a social network for AHI communities. He is dedicated to mapping out all of the villages around the world that identify with AHI.
“Part of our work is also to map out all of the African American communities in America that identify as being from the Children of Israel, just like Dimona,” said Rozenberg. “We do not touch conversion or the right of return. To keep everyone where they are and create a global family that doesn’t have to do with religion at the moment – that’s the goal.”
ITribe currently has about 300 communities in South Africa, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Japan, and China engaged, with the goal of reaching 50,000 communities by the end of 2018. Rozenberg speaks frequently in Dimona and works in conjunction with community leaders there.
“Over the years, I’ve argued that if you go back to the first Hebrew, who was Abraham, he was obedient to the instructions he received,” Ahmadiel explains. “We are Judeans, our tribal roots are of Judah, but we are not practitioners of Judaism. That’s our distinction.
Spirituality is the key. We use the Tanach and a variety of other sources for inspiration, but truth is the central focus of whatever it is that we adhere to. It has to make sense. That’s what frames our lifestyle.”