For seven years Gwendolyn Graham had made the 35-minute Sabbath walk from her home in Mill Basin to the Young Israel of Vanderveer Park, a diverse Brooklyn congregation known for welcoming black converts like herself to Judaism.
Noting that the synagogue’s rabbi, Joseph Rosenbluh, often lamented "the way some white Jews look at Jews of color," Graham (who often took her 9-year-old granddaughter Rivka Leah along) said she "enjoyed the services and felt a connection. He didn’t make any distinction between one Jew and another."
That’s why Graham was "hurt and betrayed" when, she said, the rabbi called last month to explain that while the congregation, whose decrepit building has a leaky roof and no air conditioning, had an opportunity to relocate for the summer, he could not bring along his "congregants of color." Rabbi Rosenbluh, she said, asked if she could worship someplace else.
"He asked me if I feel bad about it," said Graham, 54, a schoolteacher who converted to Judaism several years ago with the guidance of Rabbi Rosenbluh.
She later told the rabbi to make whatever decision he felt best, but not to expect to see her again.
Akedah Fulcher, an advocate on behalf of black Jews by choice, said the rabbi requested that three Young Israel congregants (all of them black) not attend Sabbath services at the new location. They are the only black congregants who attend regularly.
One man whose name was provided by Fulcher declined to comment, and another man could not be reached.
The daughter of the first man, who asked that their names not be used, said her father had initially been asked not to come to the new site but was told later that he was welcome.
In a letter to Rabbi Pesach Lerner, director of the National Council of Young Israel, of which Vanderveer Park is a member, Fulcher said she had learned that Rabbi Yehuda Levin of Khal Mevakshei Hashem (whose small congregation does not meet during the summer) was willing to allow the Young Israel congregants to use his air-conditioned synagogue temporarily "with the strict stipulation that no Jews of color attend."
Rabbi Levin, in a written statement with Rabbi Rosenbluh, insisted that "It has always been and continues to be the policy of our respective synagogues to encourage the participation of all halachic Jews of every race and background. We are saddened that any misunderstanding of this policy occurred [and] sincerely regret any pain caused to any individual due to this misunderstanding."
One black Jewish family is known to have been invited by Rabbi Rosenbluh to attend the relocated services at Rabbi Levin’s request.
In several interviews with The Jewish Week, the two rabbis declined to explain on the record the nature of the "misunderstanding" or how it occurred. Last weekend, after inquiries from The Jewish Week, the agreement to use Rabbi Levin’s synagogue fell through after two Sabbaths. Rabbi Rosenbluh said Tuesday he had found a new temporary location in Midwood, and that he had been assured it was open to all people. He added that he was working on healing the congregation.
Rabbi Levin, an activist against gay rights and abortion who drew national headlines in 1996 for supporting ultra-conservative Republican Pat Buchanan for president, said that he did not trust The Jewish Week to accurately portray his version of the events because of past articles in the paper he believes depicted Orthodox Jews unfairly.
Emmanuel Rishon, a black Jewish man who has attended Rabbi Rosenbluh’s congregation, said he was surprised to learn about the controversy because he had received a call from Rabbi Rosenbluh inviting him and his family to attend services at the new location.
"It was not unusual for him to call me," said Rishon. "Over the years he has treated my family and me with the utmost respect. It’s ironic for a person who has worked so hard [on behalf of black Jews] to get this kind of rap."
Rishon said he declined the invitation to Rabbi Levinís synagogue because his family prays according to Ashkenazic tradition, and Rabbi Rosenbluh’s minyan uses Sephardic customs. The family prays at the Young Israel of Avenue K in the Midwood area.
In her letter to the Young Israel movement, Fulcher wrote that she learned from Rabbi Rosenbluh that Rabbi Levin feared ‘the presence of ‘weird-looking Jews’ in his shul would not be tolerated by the financial backers of his synagogue."
In an interview, Fulcher noted that those contacted by the rabbi generally attended services in "Afro-centric" clothing.
Rabbi Eugene Korn of the Anti-Defamation League is looking into the incident after being contacted by Fulcher, who runs diversity-training groups for the organization.
"We would like to play a role in healing the congregation as much as possible and getting all members to feel welcome" said Rabbi Korn, the ADL’s director of interfaith affairs. "Discrimination in any form … is absolutely unjustifiable in terms of Jewish law or any form of morality."
Rabbi Lerner of the Young Israel movement did not immediately return a call for comment.
Virtually all of some 25 members of the Young Israel of Vanderveer Park, including Rabbi Rosenbluh, travel long distances on foot each Saturday to pray at the Farragut Road synagogue, located in a heavily African-American neighborhood with few Jews.
In addition to blacks, congregants include Russian immigrants, Iraqi Jews and many senior citizens. Rabbi Rosenbluh, who volunteers his services and makes his living as a dentist, has been known to welcome participation from unconventional congregants – including those who have not yet converted to Judaism: at the Young Israel. Members of the Israelite movement, also known as Black Hebrews, who are not considered Jewish, have also attended services there. Unique among Orthodox congregations, the rabbi grants non-Jews "spectator aliyot," calling them for Torah honors without the recitation of the blessings.
"It is an area that is not viable [for a synagogue], a crime-ridden area, and he has tried to hold onto it by all means, collecting people who are desperate enough to come," said Rabbi Meir Fund of the nearby Flatbush Minyan, another Orthodox congregation.
Fulcher said Graham and another man contacted by Rabbi Rosenbluh about the new location had converted to Judaism under Orthodox auspices, and that the rabbi knew that.
"I never would have thought someone who has been so supportive of black Jewish causes would have compromised the very gerim he helped," said Fulcher, using the Hebrew word for converts.
A survey in 1990 found that 6.5 percent of American Jews were non-white. Sociologists believe that with adoption, conversion and intermarriage, the figure may now be as high as 10 percent.
Gary Tobin of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research in San Francisco estimates that the non-white Jewish population is in the hundreds of thousands, and growing. His organization is to release a major study this fall on their level of acceptance.
"There are certainly different communities and congregations where Jews of color are having good experiences," said Tobin. "But there is also story after story of rejection and humiliation on the part of not only individuals but entire communities of black Jews.
Fulcher, who teaches classes to prospective converts, said she believes what happened should be discussed within the Orthodox community to prevent it from happening again.
"Rabbis should take more responsibility for what happens to gerim," she said. "There should be an apology to those who were insulted, and this should be dealt with as a community issue for a positive result."
Elisha Ankri, a longtime congregant at the Young Israel who has known Rabbi Rosenbluh for 30 years, said he would no longer attend services there until the rabbi "makes his peace with Mrs. Graham" and the others.
"This leaves a bitter taste in my mouth," said Ankri. "If you discriminate against one person, you discriminate against everyone. It’s better to daven with seven leaks [in the roof] than to insult one person."
Ankri said he believed the rabbi acted out of concern for his elderly mother, with whom he walks about 45 minutes from his Midwood home to the Young Israel building.
"He must be desperate to keep the shul going, and to make sure his mother gets to a shul that is closer because of the heat," said Ankri.
Graham, who said she is shopping for a new synagogue, said Rabbi Rosenbluh had tried to contact her again but she will not take his calls.
"If someone had told me something like this, I would have said they were lying," said Graham. "I don’t care what Rabbi Levin said, but for [Rabbi Rosenbluh] to go along with it is what hurt me. He’s my rabbi."