The Cult on Coventry 

Some call them dangerous. The Hebrew Israelites say they're merely out to save mankind.

It's Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement, and several dozen people have gathered in a snug room to celebrate the beginning of a daylong fast. They will collectively confess their sins and ask forgiveness. They wear nothing but white to symbolize purity.

But these Jews are unlike any in Cleveland. With a few white-faced exceptions, the congregation is black. The room is draped in white sheets, the walls with African art, and men greet with variations of the NBA chest-bump.

Minister Eliyahu Ben Shaleak, a grandfatherly man in flowing robes, takes the stage. His sermon borrows as much from the black power and environmental movements as it does the Torah. He talks about how fertilizer has so depleted the soil that we now rely on hydroponics for food. Then, turning to a tall man holding a dictionary, he readies himself for a lecture on perfection.

"Read!" Eliyahu barks.

"Perfect," the younger man begins, his words tinged with the accent of his native St. Croix. "Being entirely without fault or defect. Flawless. Satisfying all requirements."

"You can be perfect," Eliyahu tells the congregation. "You must be perfect to be in the land."

"Hallelu-YAH!" the congregation chants. "Hallelu-YAH!"

"The land" is Israel, where the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem, as they call themselves, have established a community of about 2,000. They also claim 30,000 members worldwide.

In Cleveland, where membership is a modest 40, they are most recognizable as the proprietors of Soul Vegetarian, a Coventry Road restaurant that recently opened a second location downtown.

Few here know the problems they caused in Israel when they arrived in 1969 to proclaim themselves the "real" Jews.

Few know that one notorious sect murdered 14 people in Miami at the behest of its charismatic leader, who asked followers to bring back the severed heads and ears of whites to gain initiation into a secret brotherhood within his "Temple of Love."

Few know that, in a report prepared before the millennium, the FBI warned that radical factions of the Hebrew Israelites might use terrorism to spark a race war.

Few know that the religion allows men to take up to seven wives, or that they view their veganism, which they propagate through their restaurants, as nothing less than a struggle for the survival of mankind.

The Hebrew Israelites in Cleveland seem like peaceful vegans who practice an obscure religion. Others say they're simply a cult.

Some of the Hebrew Israelites' practices mirror those of mainstream Judaism. They celebrate the high holy days and take their cues from the Old Testament.

Yet in other respects, the Hebrew Israelites radically depart from the Jewish lifestyle. More than just kosher, they practice a strict vegan diet. They forbid smoking, drinking, drugs, and even caffeine. Men are allowed to take multiple wives, a practice common among the biblical patriarchs but discarded by mainstream Jews centuries ago. Members are referred to as "saints," and many take the last name "Ben Israel," meaning "son of Israel."

The Hebrew Israelites' spiritual prophet is Ben Ammi Ben Israel. He is a tall, thin man with a peaceful disposition and a soft voice, who seems to have mastered the art of staring thoughtfully into the distance.

Born Ben Carter, he grew up in Chicago and worked in a foundry casting aircraft parts. One day, a middle-aged co-worker approached him at the water fountain and asked, "Do you know that our people are descendants of the biblical Israelites?"

Carter chuckled. "At that time, I was totally focused on the American Dream," he says. "I had a good job, figured in a couple years I would have a new car, maybe in a decade have my own home and pay for it until I died."

But the co-worker persisted, bringing in a Bible to make his case. He claimed that the Lost Tribes of Israel had migrated to the West Coast of Africa, where thousands of years later, slave traders kidnapped an unwilling workforce and brought it to America.

It wasn't a completely original notion. Minister Eliyahu remembers his grandmother -- the first generation of his family born free after slavery -- telling him as a boy that he was descended from the Hebrews of the Bible.

There was also scientific evidence. In 1930, author Joseph Williams documented Hebrew customs among the tribes of West Africa. Genetic testing later revealed distinctive Jewish chromosomal types in a southern African tribe. And Israel has long acknowledged Ethiopian Jews.

Still, few mainstream Jews are willing to accept the Hebrew Israelites' claims of being the descendants of the Lost Tribes. "They're just farfetched and not based on historical data," says Rabbi Richard Block of the Temple-Tifereth Israel.

But Carter came to believe, and he was eager to spread the word. He began hosting classes in his home to tell other African Americans about their heritage. At age 22, he was ordained and renamed "Ben Ammi," Hebrew for "son of my people."

Four years later, Ben Ammi says, he heard a voice -- he can't describe its sound, but the Bible would say it blared like a trumpet. It was the angel Gabriel, he later decided, bringing a message: Lead your people to the promised land, and establish the long-awaited kingdom of God.

At the time, cities across America were erupting in race riots. Ben Ammi interpreted the violence as a sign that Armageddon was nigh. He claimed blacks could save themselves by journeying to their ancestral home of Israel.

First, though, they would have to "purge" themselves of their Western lifestyle -- this, too, was part of the prophesy. Ben Ammi says he led some 350 followers out of America, though other accounts put the number as low as 160.

They settled in Liberia, a West African country founded by freed slaves in the 1800s, and they discovered they were ill equipped to survive without the trappings of modern society.

They lived in tents so porous, the rain fell as hard inside as out. They didn't know how to farm and would have starved without the bananas, pineapples, avocados, oranges, and rice offered by native Liberians. A young girl fell into a well and drowned; an old man contracted malaria and died.

Within two and a half years, many had lost faith and gone back to America. Ben Ammi decided it was time to complete the journey to Israel. He sent five families there in 1969. They were admitted under the Law of Return, which allows any Jew entrance.

Several months later, Ben Ammi and 38 followers joined them. Immigration authorities challenged their Jewishness, but issued tourist visas. Forty-nine others arrived in 1970.

By then, authorities had realized that the Hebrew Israelites had no intention of leaving. The country's Supreme Court found their qualifications for citizenship wanting. Nonetheless, the court offered a way out: The Hebrew Israelites could formally convert to Judaism.

Ben Ammi rejected the compromise, contending that his followers were already the "real" Jews. After the court rejected his claim, Ben Ammi amped up his rhetoric, telling The Baltimore Sun that two million blacks would come from America to reclaim their ancestral homeland.

The ensuing decades did little to quiet the controversy. The Hebrew Israelites compared Israel's prime minister to Hitler and invoked ugly stereotypes of money-grubbing Jews. Israel, for its part, denied the Hebrew Israelites work permits, which left them in poverty.

By 1989, the government was eager to resolve the dispute, in part to alleviate charges of racism. The interior minister met with Ben Ammi and emerged somewhat mollified. The next year, Israel offered work permits. Two years later, it granted the group temporary residency.

Yet friction remains between the Hebrew Israelites and their hosts. Earlier this year, the Hebrew Israelites lost their first member to Palestinian terrorism when 32-year-old Aharon Ben Ellis was gunned down at a party.

At the funeral, a Hebrew Israelite priest said: "We have to sacrifice our son to prove our worthiness and to be recognized in the eyes of Israel."

The Israelis seem to have ample reason for concern about their guests. The Hebrew Israelites have a history of criminality.

In 1979, law school dropout and former Nation of Islam member Hulon Mitchell Jr. moved to Miami and established a Hebrew Israelite offshoot known as the Yahwehs. Mitchell preached that he had been chosen by "the terrible black God, Yahweh" to save blacks from years of oppression and lead them to the promised land of Israel.

Within a few years, he renamed himself Yahweh Ben Yahweh -- literally "God, son of God" -- and purchased a building that he named the Temple of Love. He encouraged followers to quit their jobs, break off contact with their families, and move into the temple.

Miami Herald writer Joe Oglesby went to a worship service at the urging of a colleague in 1981. The co-worker was concerned about her sister, who had become a devotee -- this just a few years after Jim Jones and more than 900 of his followers committed mass suicide.

At the temple, Oglesby watched as the cult leader asked, "How many would die for Yahweh?"

The congregation of about 150 shouted that they would.

"How many would kill for Yahweh?"

Again they shouted that they would.

"My friends and I left the meeting convinced we'd been in the presence of a rare human being," Oglesby later wrote, "a snake charmer with an angel's eyes and the devil's charisma."

The congregation's willingness to kill was not an idle boast. In 1990, Yahweh and 14 members of the Temple of Love were indicted on charges of murder, racketeering, and arson.

Court testimony revealed that Yahweh had established a secret cult within the cult called the Brotherhood. "To become a member of the Brotherhood, one had to kill a white person and bring proof of the kill to Yahweh in the form of a head, an ear, or some other body part," court documents say.

The charges painted a gruesome picture:

" Several youths in a mostly black neighborhood of Delray Beach attacked Yahweh members going door-to-door seeking donations. In retaliation, Yahweh ordered his "death angels," as he called them, to firebomb an entire block. Five people were injured, including a 9-month-old girl.

" U.S. karate champion Leonard Dupree was recruited by the cult, but after an argument with another member, he was ordered to fight the group's resident martial arts expert. Dupree easily dispatched the man, so Yahweh ordered a horde of cult members to attack Dupree. They beat him to death, smashing his head with a tire iron and poking his eyes into his head.

" After renouncing his membership in the Hebrew Israelites, 26-year-old Aston Green was found decapitated. One of the cult's bodyguards later testified that he watched several members beat Green, wrap his battered but still breathing body in a carpet, and drive him to the Everglades, where he was beheaded with a machete.

After a five-month trial, Yahweh and six disciples were convicted of conspiracy to commit murder. Yahweh served 10 years of an 18-year prison sentence before being released last year on the condition that he not communicate with fellow cult members without permission.

Ben Ammi disavows any connection to Yahweh's group. "They were what I would call a fringe group," he says. "We're not associated with that at all."

But if Yahweh's sect is an aberration among the Hebrew Israelites, crime is not.

In the mid-1970s, federal authorities began investigating Hebrew Israelites in Chicago for check and credit card fraud. By 1980, the feds were accusing the sect of defrauding banks and airlines of $4.4 million. A former member told The Chicago Tribune that most of the money was funneled to the Hebrew Israelite settlement in Israel.

Putting the Hebrew Israelites on trial proved trickier. The perpetrators of the scams often used false names, jumped bail, and fled to Hebrew Israelite communities in other cities or abroad. At one time, more than 35 members were fugitives. One who was deported by Israel was found shot to death in Chicago several days later.

In 1981, three members of the Chicago Hebrew Israelite sect were indicted in absentia on charges of wire fraud, passport fraud, cashing forged checks, and attempting to transport more than $700,000 in stolen checks and savings bonds across state lines.

That same year, feds raided the home of a Washington, D.C. member and recovered hundreds of forged documents, as well as notes entitled "Business Course 101," which explained how to defraud airlines, banks, and credit card companies. The man jumped bail and fled.

In 1985, feds arrested 27 Hebrew Israelites -- including Warren Brown, the highest ranking American member and second-in-command to Ben Ammi. Authorities charged Brown and other members with running a sophisticated credit card and passport fraud ring.

Nine members, including Brown, eventually pleaded guilty. All escaped with suspended sentences or credit for time served.

To this day, the Hebrew Israelites deny they stole any money. "I wish we had it," Minister Eliyahu jokes.

Shortly before the new millennium, the FBI released a report titled "Project Megiddo." Prepared by the agency's domestic terrorism unit, the report analyzed groups that might use violence to usher in the Apocalypse. (Megiddo, according to scripture, is the battlefield where the Beast and the False Prophet are supposed to assemble armies to fight on Judgment Day.)

The Hebrew Israelites were one of several groups spotlighted in the 34-page report. A faction in New Mexico had been known to dress in camouflage and practice martial arts in a local park. Officials believed the sect had amassed guns and ammunition.

"This movement has been associated with extreme acts of violence in the recent past, and current intelligence from a variety of sources indicates that extreme factions . . . are preparing for a race war to close the millennium," the FBI report reads.

Suffice to say, the race war never materialized, but the report highlights the gulf between the national authorities' perception of the Hebrew Israelites and their public face in Cleveland.

Keymah Ben Israel, who founded the sect here and who pointed out the FBI report to Scene, disputes its veracity. No Cleveland members are involved in paramilitary activities, he insists. "We were shocked to even be classified with any of that kind of stuff."

And if Hebrew Israelites are involved in wrongdoing here, authorities aren't aware of it. Cleveland Heights police say they've never received a complaint, and local FBI spokesman Robert Hawk had never heard of Project Megiddo or the Hebrew Israelites before Scene called. "If they're not on our radar screen, there apparently is no threat level or any danger or anything like that," Hawk says.

The FBI warning was spurred in part by the Hebrew Israelites' black nationalist leanings, but those beliefs don't seem to hold sway in Cleveland, where the group counts two white members. Nahum St. Martin, a laid-back white man with shoulder-length blond hair, says he was welcomed by black members. "I never once felt as an outsider."

That isn't the case elsewhere. Nahum says one congregation member visited New York, where militant Hebrew Israelites stand on street corners decrying Jews and white "devils." The New York sect vilified the Clevelander, claiming he wasn't a true Hebrew because he wasn't strident enough in his beliefs.

Nahum doesn't seem bothered that some members of his religion hate him because of his skin color. He says even mainstream religions have extremist factions that don't represent the whole. "There's Muslims crashing into buildings," he says. "There's radicals everywhere."

Indeed, the line between a cult and legitimate -- if unorthodox -- religion at times seems fuzzy. Steven Hassan, a Massachusetts anti-cult expert and former member of the Moonies, defines cults as groups that control members' behavior, information, thoughts, and emotions.

One obvious indicator: if "you're told what you can read and what you can't read," he says. Never mind that some Christian parents have sought to ban from school curricula everything from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone to Of Mice and Men.

On Hassan's website -- freedomofmind.com -- he lists the Hebrew Israelites among "groups of interest" as diverse as Al Qaeda and Alcoholics Anonymous.

Experts say cults often discourage members from maintaining outside ties, but this, too, seems not to fit the Cleveland group. Nahum sees his parents once or twice a year, he says, and although they consider Ben Ammi a "mind manipulator," they've begun to accommodate their son's beliefs by cooking vegetarian meals.

Cult Information Services of Northeast Ohio runs a hotline that received 392 calls in the past year and a half, none of which concerned the Hebrew Israelites. "We did not know about them," says hotline operator Sara Zupp.

Still, Carol Giambalvo, another ex-cultist turned anti-cult expert from Florida, warns against being too trusting: "If you go over there and they know that you're a reporter, they're going to show their very best side to you."

Bryant Wilkerson considers the Hebrew Israelites a Godsend. He grew up on East 116th and Union, joining a gang when he was 13. He sold crack, stole cars, and sparred with rivals until the criminal life caught up with him. At age 20, he was convicted of aggravated robbery for stealing a woman's gold chain.

He spent the next six years behind bars, bristling under the foot of corrections officers. When he got out, Wilkerson worked as a bag runner at the airport and made car parts at a metal shop. He celebrated his 28th birthday playing spades and listening to rap.

Two days later, he got in his car and turned on the ignition. The engine began to race. He tried to shift into neutral, but the car took off in reverse. He dove out the door, but it clipped him, and the car rolled over his back.

The next month was a blur of morphine. Several weeks later, a doctor delivered the grim news: "There's a 99.9 percent chance that you will never walk again."

Wilkerson moved into a HUD building not far from where he grew up, but for a man in a wheelchair, the distance was too great to visit old friends. He prayed to God to send him righteous people.

His prayers seemed to be answered when he saw a woman in an orange and green dress and head wrap. "She was gorgeous," he says. She invited him to a Hebrew Israelite dinner.

Wilkerson was impressed with the vegetarian meal and decided to join. A year later, he has completed "absorption," the first of several courses designed to acculturate new members. He now performs poetry regularly at the group's open-mic nights.

"It was like I found what I was looking for," he says.

Women may find adjusting to the Hebrew Israelite lifestyle more difficult. Most outsiders would regard the group as patriarchal.

Men are viewed as the rightful heads of household and are allowed to take up to seven wives, though the group doesn't recommend polygamy for its American members. "Coming out of a monogamous culture, it can be difficult," admits Cleveland founder Keymah.

But not all women regard sharing their husband as a bad thing.

Aturah Yafah, who lived in Israel for several decades and came to Cleveland last year to help open Soul Vegetarian, is one of her husband's three wives. She helped select wife No. 3.

Several years ago, a pretty 20-year-old woman from Atlanta was visiting and asked to meet Yafah's husband, one of 12 "princes" who act as aides to Ben Ammi. When the young woman left, Yafah suggested to her husband that he might consider her as a third wife.

"I figured she would be an asset to the family, because she was young, with her vibrant spirit and her mannerisms," she says.

Her husband laughed, but she saw that he was interested. After a 70-day engagement period -- a tradition during which a priest counsels all involved to ease the transition -- the family grew to three wives. The women refer to each other as "sister wife."

Yafah swears there's no jealousy. "He never stopped treating me with love and concern," she says of her husband. "I was getting everything I was before. He didn't take anything away from me by getting a sister. It was just more joy and more love and more happiness."

In 1998, doctors visited the sect in Israel and found that only 6 percent of them suffered from high blood pressure, compared to 30 percent of American blacks. Only 5 percent of the Israelis were obese, compared to 32 percent of black men and half of black women in America.

"These changes in lifestyle might prevent chronic disease in American blacks, but would be hard to achieve without the unifying power of community and spirituality," the doctors concluded.

For Ben Ammi, who views the Hebrew Israelites as a "prototype" for how to establish "an ecology of the people," the scientific study provided all the encouragement he needed.

He's now making plans to resettle African Americans in Ghana, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Nigeria, where they will live according to the Hebrew Israelite model, even if they don't buy the religious beliefs. He hopes to start receiving the first immigrants within the next two years.

Ben Ammi says the Hebrew Israelites are "in pursuit of eternal life," which he says may be possible with the right diet. At 63, he expects to live at least as long as Methuselah. "My objective is 969," he says with a grin. "Because he's on record."


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