By Jared Chausow
By Katie Toth
By Elizabeth Flock
By Albert Samaha
By Anna Merlan
By Jon Campbell
By Jon Campbell
By Albert Samaha
Chaa-zaq-raw-chaa and Hashar lead the way past a solid metal door into their inner sanctum. The room is tricked out with African-looking depictions of the Twelve Tribes of Israel, along with posters in Hebrew that bear phrases from Deuteronomy 4 ("Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God") and the Talmud ("Know before whom you stand"). At the front of the room is a large table with a menorah. Armed with stacks of books, the priests take their place behind the makeshift altar, like sages about to dispense advice. They begin to record the proceedings with an old-school analog tape deck.
Chaa-zaq-raw-chaa and Hashar are soon joined by Tazadaq-khan, a very tall and thin man dressed in what look like carpenter's clothes. He disappears behind a curtain to don his black robes and warrior garb before joining the other two at the table. They describe being part of a movement that spans the five boroughs, several states, and multiple prisons.
The three men attempt to reveal as little about themselves as they possibly can. "We are the Ambassadors of Christ," Hashar the self-described Jew reiterates, saying that anything they say about themselves personally will detract from their mission. They will not give their real names, nor do they even want to say what type of work they do.
But they do let a few personal details slip. Tazadaq-khan says that although "a lot of people think Black Hebrew Israelites are a bunch of unemployed 'so-called blacks' and 'so-called Hispanics,' we all work."
"We have jobs," says Hashar with a broad smile, "or, should I say, we're slaves, working for our scraps on the plantation." Hashar was in the military before the first Gulf War—"I plead the Fifth," he says when asked what branch—which gave him an insight into the military and the ways of the United States that "only a veteran" could ever possess, he says.
Chaa-zaq-raw-chaa says that people at his job "know I'm a Jew." Asked if co-workers had ever seen him in action on the street, he seemed confident that he could never be discriminated against at work for his religion.
Like most Black Hebrew Israelites who spoke to the Voice, these men grew up in Brooklyn, mostly in East New York. All came from what sounded like extremely religious Christian households—Jehovah's Witnesses at home, or Catholics at parochial school. They each painted a picture of growing up in a neighborhood with little hope for acceptance, except maybe in a gang.
Each of them found Black Hebrew Israelites either through hearing them preaching on the street or watching a cable-access show one camp used to put on. When asked what religious moment in their own journey most stood out in their memory, Chaa-zaq-raw-chaa said it was when, in Times Square, a white man got down on his knees to kiss his boots, just as the Scriptures had preordained would happen before the end-times. (He offered no photographic evidence of the incident.)
The three spent a large amount of time talking about avoiding pork and shellfish and criticizing people who don't follow the healthy diet God laid out in the Bible. (However, one did prepare and eat the Cup Noodles soon afterward.)
If the three priests were secretive about their lives, Yahana, a 38-year-old man, was more forthcoming. Yahana, who is unemployed, says he isn't a member of any particular camp, but is spending time with various Black Hebrew Israelites while he travels. He soon plans to head out on a journey around the country, learning from camps in other states before answering a personal call to start his own in Pennsylvania.
Yahana says his newly found religion offers him spiritual clarity, but his personal life is in crisis. He has dabbled in Catholicism, he has been a Jehovah's Witness, and he has even been an atheist. He did time for dealing drugs as a young man. He hasn't seen his wife in 10 years, but hasn't divorced her. He's staying with another woman who is the mother of his 10- and 12-year-old daughters, and after his year of travels, he plans to move in with a longtime girlfriend and her son.
His relationship with women, he admits, is complicated. "We believe that when you lay down with a woman, you have to 'do business with her,' " Yahana says. "A man has needs," he says, and Black Hebrew Israelites "believe that a man needs sex not just for procreation, but for pleasure." Still, he "doesn't want to do business with just any woman. I don't want to be with an unclean woman. I want her to at least have some morals if I'm going to lay down with her."
Black Hebrew Israelites regularly scream "bitch" and "whore" at women on the street. One ex-girlfriend of a Black Hebrew Israelite told the Voice that "these guys just want to move in with women and eat their food and live rent-free." Yahana says the Bible teaches that "all you need is food in your mouth, clothes on your back, and a roof over your head." Still, he seems to think that having these three things, while also being able to pay his cell phone bill, is a sign of divine providence and not due to the generosity of the women in his life.