The late Rabbi Abel Respes, the subject of a Black History Month webinar this week, always knew his family was different.
Born in 1919 to a poor Black family in North Philadelphia, he grew up with a vague understanding of his religious background. His mother told him that their Bible was written in a different language, and his grandmother observed Jewish customs and told him that their people worshipped in secret in the past.
“I remembered my father, who read the Bible but never went to church, telling me when I was 13 — and should have been bar mitzvahed — ‘We’re different from other Negroes. We are Jews,’” he told The New York Times in 1978.
He dropped out of high school at 16 and worked odd jobs to help support his family. At 28, a series of mystical experiences, including dreams, motivated him to research his Jewish roots. His son, Rabbi Gamliel Respes, said he fasted for seven days and seven nights and began teaching himself Hebrew, reading texts like the chumash and the tanakh.
Researching his Spanish last name led him to the stories of the Marranos, or Jews who practiced in secret during the Spanish Inquisition. His studies indicated he was descended from Marranos, also known as crypto-Jews, who fled persecution and may have resettled in North and West Africa.
Respes dedicated himself to intensive study, became a rabbi and founded Adat Beyt Moshe, a largely African American congregation that began in North Philadelphia and later moved to Elwood, New Jersey.
“He felt that if this was a possibility for his family as a person of color in the United States, then maybe there were other families who sort of lost their way and were crypto-Jews because of circumstances such as the slave trade,” Rabbi Gamliel Respes said.
Adat Beyt Moshe congregants included a combination of crypto-Jewish families, converts to Judaism and other Jewish people of color. It operated communally, with families pooling resources to buy land and build homes and a synagogue.
Despite the fact that a panel of rabbis found Respes’ knowledge of Judaism to be superior to that of graduates of Yeshiva University, he and his community often faced scrutiny from white Ashkenazi rabbinic authorities who required them to prove their Jewishness, Rabbi Gamliel Respes said. During an attempt to immigrate to Israel, Abel Respes, who died in 1986, underwent a formal conversion because he could not produce proof of his heritage.
He also worked to educate the broader Jewish community about Jews of color and their history, advocating for Jews to focus on their identity as an indigenous people from the Middle East as the Torah described them, not divided along contemporary American racial categories.
“My dad was on the radio explaining this, which resonated with some people of color and they came to learn more. So the fact that my father was educating them and letting them know that there were Jews who were exiled not just in Europe but in Africa led them to come and learn from him,” Rabbi Gamliel Respes said.
He thinks the most significant part of his father’s legacy was the reach of his community and education work. His cousins have traveled across the country and encountered people along the way who recognize Rabbi Abel Respes’ name because he touched their lives in some way.
His granddaughter, Yasminah Respes, said her grandfather’s dedication to finding acceptance in the Jewish community helped inspire her to become a Jewish educator and make an Orthodox conversion in Israel.
“I wish more people knew just how wise he was,” she said. “I mean, the fact that he could teach himself Hebrew is an amazing accomplishment, especially before the internet. And the fact that he was able to influence so many members of his own family and extended community members, that’s a big deal.”
The Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia’s Jewish Community Relations Council will hold a webinar discussion with Yasminah Respes, Rabbi Gamliel Respes and historian Craig Stutman about Rabbi Abel Respes’ life in partnership with the African American Museum in Philadelphia, the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, ADL’s Black-Jewish Alliance and the Jewish Community Relations Council of Southern New Jersey on Feb. 23 in honor of Black History Month.
Viewers can register for the 7 p.m. Zoom event at