The Hebrew Israelite community in Dimona marked the 39th anniversary of its "exodus" from the United States this week with a two-day "New World Passover" celebration. Hundreds of guests - including a number of foreign delegations - joined over 1,000 local participants in the festivities, which culminated last night with performances by two members of the local community: Eddie Butler, who represented Israel in the Eurovision song contest last weekend, and Shadahyah, who is about to embark on a world tour.
The event in Dimona appears incongruous to a first-time visitor - a predominantly black-skinned crowd speaking American English but offering holiday greetings in Hebrew (hag sameah!), colorful African-style dress and fervent revival-meeting-style "Hallelujahs" together with Lubavitcher-like references to their "anointed" spiritual leader.
The first group of African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem - better known as Black Hebrews - left Chicago in 1967, a year after their leader, Ben Ammi Ben Israel, announced he had received a message from God. "When the vision came, in February 1966, the angel Gabriel brought the message that it was time to start the journey back to the Promised Land and to establish the long-awaited kingdom of God," Ben Ammi explains. "Like prophets before me, like Moses and Ezekiel - I wasn't prepared for it."
Ben Ammi waited several weeks before sharing his vision. "I didn't want to embarrass myself and didn't want to be ostracized, but finally I realized that the only way to know if the vision was from God was to speak the words that were spoken to me." According to Ben Ammi, the riots that erupted in American cities a few months later were part of the divine plan to convince people to join his exodus mission.
There was no direct flight to Israel in Ben Ammi's vision: "We needed to sojourn in the wilderness, just as our fathers did not directly enter Israel from ancient Egypt." Unlike the biblical sojourn of forty years, the Hebrew Israelites spent only two years en route to Israel, living during this period in Liberia. But it may take forty years for them to attain citizenship status in Israel: Only in 2003 were members of the community granted permanent resident status. This paved the way for army service, the next step toward citizenship status. But even without full citizenship rights, "We're an integral part of the people of Israel in every aspect," Ben Ammi insists.
"We're always excited about representing Israel," Ben Ammi responds when asked about the community's singer, Eddie Butler, who was an enthusiastic envoy of Israel at the Eurovision songfest this month. Butler's song finished next-to-last among 24 contestants. This was initially disappointing, Ben Ammi concedes, "but after we considered who won, we knew that the mindset of the people was not ready for the light from Israel."
In fact, Ben Ammi says, Israel actually emerged as a winner by displaying a unique harmony on the stage: "They saw black, they saw white, they saw talent, they saw togetherness, they saw brotherhood. On that stage, they saw Israel in its fullness. That's what we represented. And in that category, we won the Eurovision for Israel."
Immanuel Ben-Yehuda, who is addressed by the honorific "Prince" in recognition of his service to the community, serves as the Hebrew Israelites' congressional liaison in Washington, D.C., as well as its point man vis-a-vis the Israeli government. Originally from Oklahoma, he came in 1978 to Hebrew University in Jerusalem as part of his studies toward a Master's degree at Baylor University in Texas. He visited the community in Dimona and "found an affinity with the things my grandfather had told me - that we weren't from the U.S., we were from Israel. I knew I had found my place."
Prince Immanuel spends part of each year on Capitol Hill in Washington, where the community maintains an office, and he describes a close working relationship with Israel's Foreign Ministry. In particular, the community is uniquely suited to serve as a bridge between the Afro-American and Jewish communities in the U.S., and between African countries and Israel, he explains.
The Hebrew Israelite neighborhood in Dimona - which was officially certified last month as an urban kibbutz and named Shomrei Hashalom [Guardians of Peace] - often hosts government officials and businessmen from Africa who study it as a model for modern African villages. Prince Immanuel also visited Africa recently on behalf of the Ben Ammi Institute for New Humanity, a new conflict-resolution center established in collaboration with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and aimed at pursuing Martin Luther King's vision of international outreach.
Desiree Norens, a college student from Walla Walla, Washington, related her impressions of the Dimona community as she worked through a large chunk of watermelon at the main tent on Wednesday. (Some 12 tons of watermelons were ordered for the event.) Norens, who is studying this urban kibbutz while spending a semester at Ben-Gurion University in Be'er Sheva, notes that it is the largest vegan community in the world. "But not only this," she continues. "They have a unique holistic lifestyle, including the clothing they wear (no synthetic fabrics), their music, non-violence."
Arenda Troutman came to Dimona this week from Chicago, where she has served as an alderman for 16 years. She has not missed a New World Passover celebration in Dimona since being introduced to the community in 2000. "Once I came here and met the leadership, I was just mesmerized and was so delighted to be part of such a great village," she says. "It's very prophetic, very spiritual. I enjoy what they're doing, preparing such a beautiful home for anyone who wants to leave Babylon," she says with a smile. Is she leaving Babylon? "No, not just yet, but I'll have a place prepared when I do."