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The Destruction of Commandment Keepers, Inc. 1919-2007
The traditional day of mourning for Jews is the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av because on it the temple that King Solomon built in Jerusalem was destroyed first in 586 BCE and then again in 70 AD. Normally the month of Av occurs in August. However, in 2007 the month of Av came in April for members of the Israelite community because that is when our oldest congregation was destroyed. Psalm 137 says, “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, Let my right hand forget (her skill). Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if I remember thee not.” Similarly, I say if we forget how this once great congregation came to such a pitiful end then we have no reason for having a brain or a heart. Therefore, I have written this article as an epitaph upon the tomb stone of Commandment Keepers Congregation.
Thousands of Israelites passed through its doors and almost every black rabbi in America owes his existence to its presence. Books, articles, and film documentaries have been made about this most famous Israelite place of worship. It was built by a young man named Wentworth Arthur Matthew who at the age of twenty-seven stood on a ladder in the streets of Harlem telling its residents that they were descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and needed to return to their God. In 1919 he assembled a hand full of men and women who believed enough, loved enough, and were willing to sacrifice enough to build a congregation for God’s honor and glory. Over the next eighty-eight years of its life it would be located at several places in Harlem. When my parents joined it in 1957 it was located above a drug store at 87 West 128th street. In 1962 it moved into a mansion built in 1890 for John Dwight, one of the founders of the Arm and Hammer Company.
In 1942 Rabbi Matthew published a memoir called the Minute Book, it was a summary of the early years of the congregation. In it he described those first decades as the “most gigantic struggle of any people for a place under the sun.”1 By this he was referring to the other black synagogues that did not survive the Great Depression such Beth B’nai Avraham and the Moorish Zionist Temple founded by Rabbi Arnold Ford and Rabbi Mordica Herman respectively. Even Commandment Keepers had lost a residence but the congregation—which is always more than the building that houses it—survived. Their faith in God and love for each other allowed them to overcome forces that had destroyed even Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association.
When the congregation moved into its final home, Rabbi Matthew himself painted the number “one” on the vestibule door. In part it represented the address, 1 West 123rd Street, but on a deeper level it represented Rabbi Matthew’s dream that Commandment Keepers would be the first (and possibly best) of many black synagogues to follow. In fact, some of its stationery referred to the congregation as “Headquarters” and it was thought of as such by many of Matthew’s students throughout New York and Chicago until its decline. Moreover, in the minds of many people outside of our community, Commandment Keepers Congregation was synonymous with Black Jews. Because of its unique history it was the only black synagogue in the United States that was recognized as an historic landmark.
The Talmud says “when the parties to a suit are standing before thee, let them both be regarded by thee as guilty, but when they are departed from thy presence, regard them both as innocent, the verdict having been acquiesced in by them.”2 - Avot 1:8. Therefore, if we were to apply this teaching to the parties responsible for the loss of Commandment Keepers Congregation then publicly we would have to say that they are all guilty. Indeed, we are all guilty of things we did or failed to do that might have changed this outcome. However, the scriptural images that comes to my mind is the case of the two woman who came before King Solomon both claiming to be mother of one living child. Here, too, both sides in this calamity claim that they are the rightful leaders and owners of the building. King Solomon’s verdict to divide the baby in half relied upon the belief that the true mother would say the child’s life is more important than her being right. Therefore, she would give up her claim to save the child.
“The woman whose son was alive was filled with compassion for her son and said to the king, "Please, my lord, give her the living baby! Don't kill him!" But the other said, "Neither I nor you shall have him. Cut him in two!" - I King 3:26
Thinking about what happened to Commandment Keepers Congregation is like watching an explosion in slow motion. The fire there had been burning slowly and internally almost since the death of our founder, Chief Rabbi W.A. Matthew, in 1973. Reliving what happened there is like performing an autopsy or writing a manual for how to destroy a synagogue from within.
Each side in this internecine struggle thought that they were fighting the enemy when, in fact, they were fighting themselves. Hence, they were committing suicide as they murdered the congregation. On some level this was obvious to everyone except those who were most emotionally obsessed with the battle. Over the decades attempts by respected individuals and organization within the Israelite community to broker a peace were repeatedly rejected by both sides. As Rabbi Hailu Paris describes the squabbling the plagues our community, “Yom Kippurs came and went without any forgiveness.” Conciliatory phone calls were made and letters of reconciliation were written, but they seemed locked in a downward spiral of accusations, confrontation, litigation—somehow believing that the next law suite will finally resolve the problem. Even now, the sale of the building may not be the end of the feuding. The last attempt was made about three years ago. I informed the parties that the Israelite Board of Rabbis was willing to convene at Bet Din (Rabbinic Court) to resolve this issue and finally heal this open wound which has been a blight on our entire community. Both sides rejected this offer; once again putting their individual wants above the needs of their congregation and ignoring the institutions of the Israelite community that they claim to cherish.3
“Two households, both alike in dignity…” The words that Shakespeare used to open his tragic play Romeo and Juliet would be a fair description of the two families that were at the heart of the conflict that destroyed Commandment Keepers Congregation. Both families were honorable and distinguished. One of the warring camps was led by Rabbi David Dore, the grandson of Chief Rabbi Matthew, and the other combatants were led by the late Rabbi Chaim White, one of Chief Rabbi Matthew’s most loyal and trusted students. By most accounts, Rabbi Matthew expected these parties to work together. He never imagined that they would become entangled in a struggle to the death for control of what he built.
Tension turned into open rebellion when Rabbi Dore was locked out of the synagogue and effectively banned from the bimah in the early 1980s. From Rabbi Dore’s perspective this was the start of the coup d'état that wrongly deposed him of the position his grandfather bequeathed. Rabbi White regarded that moment as the necessary actions taken by the congregation’s legitimate board to deal with an ungovernable member. Although a few people took sides in this civil war, most people whose history in our community extends back for thirty years or more remember these events like a child who grew up in a dysfunctional family. We did not wish for a winner in the fight between father and mother or our sister and our brother. We simply wanted the fighting to end and prayed that the wonderful times we shared together with the combatants when we were as one unified and harmonious family could return.
Other low points on the road to destruction include a sidewalk bar mitzvah in 1994 when Rabbi Dore’s son was forced to enter manhood on the curb because they were not allowed to use the sanctuary. Almost ten years later another flurry of law suits occurred and the altercations became more violent as Rabbi Dore claimed that he was pushed to the floor inside the building following a prayer service by someone close to Rabbi White. Police were brought in on several occasions including one in which people close to Rabbi Dore hired a locksmith to enter and temporarily occupy the building. As late as 2006, several people including Rabbinit White were physically assaulted on the Sabbath while trying to enter the synagogue. These incidents did not occur frequently but their severity and unpredictability created a climate of hostility that weighed on the declining congregation like death itself.
During this long embattled period, Rabbi Dore entered into a self-imposed exile during which he virtually cut himself off from the rest of the Israelite community. Except for an occasional funeral or wedding he was rarely seen. He was not a member of the Israelite Board of Rabbis, he did not teach in the Israelite Rabbinical Academy, and he did not generally worship at black congregations. In contrast, the White family—particularly Rabbi and Rabbinit White—remained engaged in the Israelite community beyond Commandment Keepers Congregation. It may be that Rabbi Dore and his supporters assumed, incorrectly, that any person or synagogue that welcomed the Whites was ipso facto against the Dores and vice versa. Without a doubt the family feud at Commandment Keepers was a blight on the entire community, but there was very little that people outside the congregation could do to ameliorate the situation. The families of Rabbi Yehoshua Yahonatan and Rabbi Levi Ben Levy urged the parties to seek a compromise, but during most of the period these rabbis were building new congregations in Brooklyn, Queens, and Mt. Vernon.4 It was hoped that when a new rabbi was appointed, Rabbi Zechariah Ben Lewi, following his ordination in 2000 that he might be able to usher in a new period of reconciliation—since he was not a party to any of the earlier fighting. Sadly, things declined even more precipitously as members who stuck with the congregation through earlier storms grew weary and frustrated. As one of these members described it, near the end “it wasn't the fighting outside that turned me away, it was the fighting inside.”
David Lee, the Gabi of the congregation and a fierce supporter of the Whites, told the Israelite Board of Rabbis that the decision to sell the building in April 2007 for a reported $1.6 million dollars was not easy. Since he and other principles to the original dispute are now in their seventies and eighties, it may be that they feared that the building might have fallen into the hands of their nemesis should they die or retire. Rather than see this happen, they sold the synagogue without so much as a memorial service, which is requisite when a synagogue is closed. Members were not even told of the last service or given an opportunity to pay their last respects. No efforts were made to find homes for the Torahs, religious articles, or financial proceeds from the sale within the Israelite community. Needless to say, the manner in which all this occurred added a degree of sadness that is worse than had the building burned down because that would have been an accident but this was done with an element of spite and hate—the two things that really destroy a congregation.
In retrospect, the handwriting was on the wall. Like Babylon our hearts and actions were measured and found lacking. Therefore, as tragic as this is, I yet believe that it is a warning from a merciful God asking us to look at how we behave. We should be embarrassed by the spectacle that we see in the mirror enough to change. In this conflict there was no mother who was willing to sacrifice her desires in order to save the child. Learn from this warning. Do not let divisions fester in your congregation. Our problems will never be solved by courts, police, or any outside bodies. We must love each other, support each other, and trust our own institutions. If they are weak then we must work to make then stronger as if our survival depends upon it because it does.
We did not lose this part of our foundation to a tragic fire, nor was it due to a lack of financial resources, nor were racist or anti-Semites to blame. No! We loss that building because self-interest became more important than devotion to Hashem and love of each other. Thus, the memory of that building has now become a monument to self-destruction.
1Sholomo B. Levy, African American Lives