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Rabbi Wentworth Arthur Matthew holding a Torah scroll.

Wentworth Arthur Matthew (June 23, 1892[1][2]—December 1973)[3] was the founder of the Commandment Keepers.[4][5][6]

According to Matthew, he was born in Lagos, Nigeria, although others say he was born in St. Kitts.[7] In his 1927 petition for naturalization, Matthew lists his place of birth as Spooner's Village, British West Indies.[1] When he registered with Selective Service during World War II in 1942, he lists his place of birth as St. Christopher, British West Indies.[2]

Matthew married his wife Florence (August 29, 1893[1]—July 1980),[3] who was also from the British West Indies. This union produced at least four children, who were as follows:

  • Arthur (July 12, 1917[1] —June 1987)[3]
  • Florence, born March 25, 1920[1]
  • Samuel E. (February 20, 1923[1]—June 1987)[3]
  • Joseph, born August 24, 1926[1]

In 1919, Matthew founded the Commandment Keepers Congregation in Harlem. He was heavily influenced by the white Jews he met, and when he learned about the Beta Israel, he began to identify with them.[5] Matthew trained rabbis, who set up synagogues throughout the United States and the Caribbean. When, interviewed, many of the older members of this community recall memories of their parents observing Jewish dietary laws, such as abstaining from pork or salting their meat.

The group was heavily influenced by the philosophy of Marcus Garvey and his organization, the Universal Negro Improvement Association. Rabbi Arnold Josiah Ford was the composer of the UNIA's Universal Ethiopian Anthem and its hymnal. He also led the UNIA band and conducted its choir.

Matthew believed black Jews were the original Jews, and white Jews were the descendants of the Khazars who had kept and preserved Judaism. Matthew, however, eventually concluded black Jews would not be accepted by the white Jewish community.[4][7]

Matthew's congregation followed traditional Jewish law. Men and women were seated separately, standard Orthodox Jewish prayer books were used, and the laws concerning Shabbat and kashrut were observed.[7]

Wentworth Matthew's teachings are followed today by many Black Hebrew Israelites. Matthew believed that blacks who convert to Judaism were not converting, but rather returning to Judaism.[8]

Matthew applied and was rejected twice to become a member of the New York Board of Rabbis. After his death in 1973, his Jewish orientation was taken on by Capers Funnye, who is now a rabbi at the Beth Shalom B'nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation in Chicago,[9] which he founded in 1985.[10]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g "Selected U.S. Naturalization Records - Original Documents, 1790-1974 [database on-line"]. United States: The Generations Network. 1927-05-26. Retrieved 2009-04-30. 
  2. ^ a b "U.S. World War II Draft Registration Cards, 1942 [database on-line"]. United States: The Generations Network. 1942. Retrieved 2009-04-30. 
  3. ^ a b c d "Social Security Death Index [database on-line"]. United States: The Generations Network. Retrieved 2009-04-30. 
  4. ^ a b Ben Levy, Sholomo. "The Black Jewish or Hebrew Israelite Community". Retrieved 2007-12-15. 
  5. ^ a b Holzinger, Kay. "Black Jews". Retrieved 2007-12-16. 
  6. ^ The Manhattan African-American History and Culture Guide, Museum of the City of New York
  7. ^ a b c "Obama’s Rabbi" by Zev Chafets, The New York Times, April 5, 2009.
  8. ^ Bahrampour, Tara (June 26, 2000). "They're Jewish, With a Gospel Accent". New York Times. Retrieved 2008-01-19. 
  9. ^ Angell, Stephen W. (2001). "The North Star". Florida A & M University. Retrieved 2008-02-09. 
  10. ^ Chireau, Yvonne (2000). "Black Culture and Black Zion: African American Religious Encounters with Judaism, 1790–1930, an Overview". in Yvonne Patricia Chireau, Nathaniel Deutsch, eds.. Black Zion: African American Religious Encounters with Judaism. New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 18. ISBN 0195112571.  p. 48

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