Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Highly Healthy Hebrews

Ruffling his distinctive beard and directing a regal, pacific gaze towards the growing crowd of Shavuot revelers, Sar Elyashuv ben Yehuda made a dignified proclamation, “Our people have arrived at another season of development.”

As the multitudes of multihued Black Hebrews congregated in the Village of Peace town square, their spiritual aura and robust, communal disposition were manifest.

"This Shavuot celebration is a true expression of thanks for the bountiful harvest and for the ability to sustain ourselves in this land. Our brothers and sisters come out to represent for Yah on the most festive holiday of the year," said Yafah bat Gabriel, a community spokesperson.

On the 40th Shavuot since their triumphant exodus from the United Statues in 1967, the Black Hebrews had ample cause to rejoice. With a vibrant community of about 2000 proud souls mostly residing in the north Negev town of Dimona, the group celebrated stunningly good health and longevity.

As compared with the dreadful health statistics of African-Americans living in the United States, the Black Hebrews have largely avoided the dominant Western medical scourges: cancer, heart attack, diabetes, and stroke. According to a study conducted by a group of American researchers in 1998, elevated blood pressure is about 1/5 and obesity about 1/6 that of the average rate for African-Americans. Moreover, a minute number of hospital calls originate in their section of Dimona.

“We are not a religion but a way of life,” said Hecumliel Ha-Kohen, one of fourteen priests in the community, which is formally called the African Hebrew Israelite Nation of Jerusalem, often shortened to Hebrew Israelites.

"The movement's collective consciousness is rooted in the essence of the Hebrew Bible. We’ve seen observable, positive consequences of following these traditions,” said Hecumliel.

“Generally, we are asserting the power of village life over the temptations of modern urban life," said Ahmadiyah ben Yehuda, a community doctor. "As a light unto the nations and unto Israel, we say 'no' to the things that seek to destroy life," said Ahmadiyah. "So-called normal diseases just don't exist here."

The movement was founded by former Chicago steelworker Ben Ammi ben Israel, and many Black Hebrews view their 78 year-old leader as the messiah.

The culture mixes ancient Hebraic with holistic, pan-African traditions. The group's unique fusion of Jewish and African-American influences emerged in the context of several other similar movements that sprouted in the United States beginning in the late 19th Century.

Black Hebrews consider themselves the descendants of ancient Israelites who traveled southwestwards through Africa after the destruction of the Second Temple. Having returned to what they view as the Northeast African homeland, the Black Hebrews are now divinely focused on honing bodily awareness and fitness.

Having instituted community-wide veganism in 1977, the group's health record is evidence of the power of environment and diet, over genetic predisposition, in determining overall health.

"Vegan nutritional values are rooted in the biblical emphasis on consuming plant matter," said Ahmadiyah. "There is a huge difference in health between our members who have always eaten vegan and those who consumed other foods prior to joining our community. The few serious health problems that we see occur with our folks who have not always adhered to this lifestyle."

He added, "Regardless, we don't know funerals – neither due to ill health nor due to criminal causes."

Ahmadiyah recounted the story of a young member of the community who ratted out his younger sibling for having drunk liquid during a meal. The community takes its dietary restrictions seriously, and the members' exceptional health is evidence of the success of extensive communal health regulations.

The community has four weeks a year in which sugar consumption is prohibited. In addition, four "live food" weeks are set aside for the exclusive consumption of uncooked foods.

Community members also fast for the entirety of the Sabbath. Moreover, the community observes a number of salt-free and transfat-free days throughout the year.

Caffeine and marijuana consumption are forbidden. The only alcohol imbibed is the wine cultivated by the group.

A 78 year-old member of the community recently completed the Tiberias marathon in 5.5 hours, an improvement of one hour over his time two years prior.

"Our community is 100% health literate," said Ahmadiyah. "Therefore, we don't consider it miraculous to live to be very old."

The Holy Council is the community's spiritual body responsible for ensuring adhesion to the seven pillars of faith – which also encompass dietary rules and progressive environmental policies. “Our neighbors in Dimona can see our lack of accumulated bottles, bags and boxes in our trash heaps,” said Sar Elyashuv.

The community receives about 400 visitors per month, many of whom are interested in learning more about the group's exceptional health literacy.

"We have begun exporting this model of communal health maintenance and disease prevention to a few African societies," said Nasik Imanuel ben Yehuda, who is International Projects Director for the African Hebrew Development Agency (AHDA) - the community’s NGO. "Dimona has never lost a mother in childbirth, due to our humanistic emphasis on good health, advocacy, and maternal care," he added.

Frequent exercise, high water consumption, and internal cleansing are the integral aspects of the Regenerative Health and Nutrition Program in Ghana, which is coordinated with both the Ghanaian Ministry of Health and Mashav, the international development wing of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. AHDA is also coordinating an irrigation project in Kenya.

“Their combination of modern and traditional medical practice has taught us many new things,” said Ghanaian Health Ministry spokesperson Esi Arhin. "This African model has been redeveloped scientifically and highly effectively in the context of the Hebrew Israelite experience," she added.

“We hope to give the world a better understanding of Israel. Many people in other countries just see the Intifada and the checkpoints. But, we want to demonstrate a highly positive face of Israel, especially with regards to African countries,” said Nasik Imanuel. “Many Ghanaian folks are now saying: ‘To next year in Dimona.’"

Alas, despite years of peripheral existence, the community is gradually becoming more Israeli. After having contributed musically to life on IDF bases across Israel for many years, the community began enlisting its members in the IDF in 2004 – just months after the group was granted permanent residency status in 2003 by the Ministry of the Interior. Currently, about 120 of its young people are in the IDF.

Moreover, community leaders expect that some members will begin to receive Israeli citizenship by 2008. Those who have served in the IDF and those who lack citizenship in any nation are likely to be the first to gain Israeli citizenship.

“The army has really helped assimilate me into broader Israeli society,” said Dimona native Ben Edwards ben Israel, who has worked in intelligence translation, military police, and new recruit training.

The community is bilingual in varying degrees. Most young people attend Hebrew-language community schools. Black American English smattered with Hebrew phrases is the most common form of communication.

Besides Dimona, Arad, and Mizpeh Ramon, the group also has a significant presence in Chicago, Atlanta, Ghana, South Africa, and a number of other locales.

Since 2006, the group has been recognized as urban Kibbutz Shomrei Ha-shalom - as part of the national Kibbutz Movement. Its economic prosperity is based on the production of organic soy products, natural fiber clothes, and popular music. The community also operates restaurants in Dimona, Tel Aviv, Accra, Washington D.C., and Melbourne, among other places.
"We manufacture about 85% of the clothing we wear, and our goal is to dramatically increase our food production from the current level of 15% to complete self-sufficiency," said Ahmadiyah.

Having escaped from the racism and poverty of the United States, the community is still battling for its material wellbeing in Israel. Most community members currently reside in cramped, substandard former Dimona absorption center housing.

The community is poised to fulfill its dream of complete collectivization of its spiritually-oriented kibbutz when the financing is completed for 282 new housing units in the Mamshit neighborhood of Dimona.

"Because of our unique way of life, it will be much easier to function as Kibbutz Shomrei Ha-shalom when everyone is living in the same area," said Yafah. "It is also inevitable that this will make us more and more established as Israelis."

Official Black Hebrew Website
Haaretz Article Link

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