New-York Historical Society

Black History Month – 20th Century

“One of the smallest and least known national groups in this country is a group of Black Jews. In New York, Newark, Philadelphia, and other cities, and in some of the West India Islands as well, they congregate in little synagogues, strictly adhering to the faith of their forefathers.” So wrote photographer and historian Alexander Alland in his introduction to a series of photographs of the Commandment Keepers Congregation in Harlem, taken in 1940.

The Commandment Keepers were founded in 1919 by Wentworth Arthur Matthew, who believed that Black Jews had direct lineage from the ancient Hebrews and Israelites and that ancient biblical figures were black. By 1940, the Harlem congregation numbered above 500. They followed traditional Jewish practice and observed Jewish holidays, such as Simchat Torah, pictured above.

In conjunction with the synagogue, Rabbi Matthew ran a school where children learned Hebrew and Jewish History and received religious training.

At the time Alland photographed the Commandment Keepers, their synagogue was located above a drugstore at 128th Street and Lenox Avenue. In 1962, the Commandment Keepers moved into the former residence of Arm & Hammer Baking Soda baron John Dwight, located at 1 West 123rd Street. A neo-Renaissance brownstone designed by architect Frank H. Smith, the building was later given landmark status. Matthew’s death in 1973 led to internecine battles over who would succeed him as spiritual leader, which culminated in 2007 with one faction selling the historic building for 1.26 million dollars. A lawsuit contesting the sale was brought by the other faction and the issue remains unresolved.

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