The spiritual leader of Israel’s Black Hebrews movement, Ben Ammi Ben-Israel, 75, died suddenly on Saturday, plunging the community into grief and disbelief.
“It was a shock because he was so well loved and done so much for the interests of the community, and done so much for each of us to live a healthy and holy life,” Yafah Baht Gavriel, a spokeswoman for the community, told The Times of Israel on Sunday.
“The love that everyone has for him, it’s like it’s radiating throughout the village,” she said.
Ben-Israel was born Ben Carter in 1939 in Chicago, the center of the Black Hebrews movement. He said he received a visit from the angel Gabriel in 1966 instructing him to bring the community to the Land of Israel. In 1967, he led a group of 350 believers to Liberia, where they lived for two and a half years for a period of spiritual cleansing, before arriving in Israel in 1969. The government settled them in Dimona, an isolated town in the Negev desert, where the majority of Black Hebrews still live today in an urban kibbutz called Village of Peace.
They claim to be descendants of the biblical Israelites, specifically the tribe of Judah, and practice a vegan lifestyle, which they trace to a verse in Genesis.
Considered the messiah by his followers, Ben-Israel traced the group’s heritage from Judah, to West Africa after the destruction of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE, and eventually to their being sold as slaves to the United States centuries later.
Ben-Israel led the Black Hebrews’ struggle for recognition and permanent residency in Israel, as the community was sometimes portrayed as a shadowy sect, since many practice polygamy. The Chief Rabbinate does not recognize them as Jewish and the community, which now numbers approximately 3,000, has refused to convert, claiming that they are already Jewish.
Ben-Israel worked tirelessly to promote the Black Hebrews’ cause both with the Interior Ministry and wider Israeli society. Many of them entered Israel as tourists and were in the country illegally until the Interior Ministry granted them temporary residency in 1992. They were granted residency status in 2003. The first Black Hebrew was awarded citizenship in 2009, and Black Hebrews now serve in the army.
The community has also slowly gained wider acceptance in Israel. In 2008, president Shimon Peres celebrated his 85th birthday in Dimona with the community, and praised their dedication to developing the Negev and love for Israel.
Members dress in colorful, self-made clothes, and shun birth control. The group has thousands more members in the U.S, the Caribbean, Africa and the U.K.
In Israel, they established businesses in crafts and tailoring, formed a respected choir, started a factory producing tofu ice cream and set up several vegan restaurants.
The group also does aid work in Africa. In Ghana, a country where it says tribes have Hebraic connections, members teach organic farming methods and have drilled dozens of water wells.
Several members have achieved prominence. Two singers from the group represented Israel in the annual Eurovision song festival in 1999. Another singer was killed in a Palestinian shooting attack at a Jewish family celebration in the Israeli city of Hadera in 2002.
“While obviously deeply saddened at the loss of our Holy Father’s physical presence,” said Ahmadiel Ben Yehuda, a spokesman, “we are nevertheless emboldened in knowing that his spirit truly lives in each and every one of us. His example and focused commitment to Yah and His people will be an eternal flame in our hearts and a guiding light on our path.”
Baht Gavriel did not release the cause of death. Ben-Israel is survived by four wives and 20 children.
“We’re going to continue on, we’re going to continue to develop our community to show how much we love him,” Baht Gavriel said. “It is a shock and it’s painful, but we are determined to continue.”
A funeral date has not been announced. A memorial service is set for January 4.