B’nai Abraham Chabad Synagogue in Philadelphia’s Society Hill neighborhood will hold its first big post-pandemic event on July 21.
As Rabbi Yochonon Goldman put it, the event will be a communal moment of reopening, reconnecting and renewing for the path ahead.
That’s why rapper Nissim Black will be the headliner.
Black describes himself on his website as “an African American Hasidic Jew.” He found religion and converted to Judaism after years of exposure to drugs, gangs and violence on the streets of Seattle, he told the Exponent. Then in 2015, at 28, he moved to Israel, where he still lives.
All the while, Black rapped about his unorthodox journey and identity.
He has more than 49,000 subscribers on YouTube and more than 47,000 followers on Instagram, and several videos for his songs have received more than a million views on YouTube.
“He came from a challenging place and represents the human spirit, and the ability to turn darkness to light,” Goldman said.
The rapper’s original plan was to appear in the B’nai Abraham sanctuary via Zoom to talk about his story and then take questions. But now, he’s going to show up in person, he said. Black is slated to start a tour in New York City on July 22, but he decided to come to the United States a day early. The 34-year-old said he loves meeting new Jewish people and seeing new Jewish communities.
“I always tell people it couldn’t happen without you or your grandparents,” Black said of his conversion. “You left the porch light on for me.”
Goldman thinks congregants are excited to hear from Black. B’nai Abraham has hosted minor celebrities before, he added, but none on Black’s level.
Black’s story should make him interesting even to those who don’t listen to rap, the rabbi said.
His early life was a cycle of misfortune. Black’s parents were “in the drug game” during the crack epidemic in the 1980s, he said, and at multiple points he found religion before being pulled away from the straight and narrow path. He “started running with a street gang” before discovering Islam from his maternal grandfather. But then, his grandfather went to prison for life.
Right before high school, Black tried to save himself by getting involved in a Christian missionary program after school. But when he eventually got a rap record deal, he was pushed to become a gangster rapper by his label. Finally, Black got into a beef with another rapper and found himself in a “kill or be killed situation,” as he described it. So Black’s friend, unbeknownst to Black, tried to kill the opposing rapper, and ended up getting charged with attempted murder.
“If there is something that will cause you to become religious, that’s it,” Black said.
That’s when Black picked up the Old Testament again and just started reading, instead of reading it from a Christian perspective.
“The Christian approach is to match Old Testament wisdom with Jesus as the messiah, as opposed to wisdom and values,” Black said.
“From the moment I started learning about the Torah and the Jewish people, it had always been in my heart to be here,” he concluded.
B’nai Abraham opened in 1910 and also survived the Spanish flu pandemic from 1918 to 1920. Even as COVID-19 raged on, the old temple didn’t lose any congregants,
Tickets to the July 21 event cost $180 and can be bought at tribute.phillyshul.com. A barbecue dinner will precede Black’s appearance, open to all 100 families that make up the B’nai Abraham congregation, as well as members of the public interested in attending. The dinner starts at 6 p.m., and the main event takes place in the sanctuary.
All proceeds will go toward the historic preservation of the synagogue, Goldman said.
“Registration is still happening,” he said. “It seems like people are excited for this opportunity to reconnect in person.”