Debra Bowen was not originally a rabbi. As her profile on Congregation Temple Beth’El’s website explains, she earned her degree in accounting from Temple University, worked for the Internal Revenue Service and General Electric and helped her mother start a day care center for underprivileged children in North Philadelphia.
But after years of study under her mother, Rabbi L.E. Dailey, Bowen “received her ordination,” according to the site. In 2001, when Dailey died, Bowen was chosen to take over leadership of the synagogue that her mother shepherded for 50 years: Congregation Temple Beth’El.
Today, the synagogue on Lowber Avenue in West Oak Lane still fills up for Shabbat services with members who are ready to submit themselves to prayer. Bowen leads the community with her husband, Earl Bowen, also a rabbi after spending his career in another field, academia. Earl Bowen was ordained in 2011.
Their community consists primarily of Black congregants, but also Puerto Ricans, Native Americans and Ashkenazi Jews. Congregation Temple Beth’El was founded on one of Dailey’s guiding beliefs: that African Americans were descendants of Abraham, though they made no exclusive claim to that heritage.
“We were Israelites. The Jewish faith originated as an Afro-Asian orientation. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were of Afro-Asian heritage,” Debra Bowen said. “We understand that this is our heritage. However, we do not claim it as uniquely ours because Judaism has spread all over the world.”
“People say, ‘How could you be a Jew? I say, ‘How could we not?’” she added.
According to a section about her on Beth’El’s website, Dailey grew up in a Baptist home where her father, a minister, gathered “the men of the community” for Saturday Bible study. The future rabbi’s family salted its meats before cooking them, covered mirrors and sat in dark rooms for seven days after deaths in the family and refrained from work and play on their Sabbath, which was Sunday.
As an adult, Dailey moved from Annapolis to Philadelphia to work as “a domestic in a Jewish home,” according to that same website section. She noticed that the family was observing the Sabbath and keeping kosher. It reminded her of her childhood. Dailey felt a connection, started praying and began to practice those same rituals.
As a 2017 Jewish Exponent article on Beth’El explained, Dailey did not believe the connections were coincidental. In her father’s era, “many were rejecting Christianity as a slave religion.” When Dailey’s father died and was buried in a family plot, Bowen noticed that many of the surrounding tombstones had Stars of David on them.
It was this connection that motivated Dailey to start a Jewish prayer group in her living room, according to Beth’El’s website. It grew into Congregation Temple Beth’El. Dailey traveled to nearly every state to spread her message, according to her daughter.
“Eventually many of them moved to Philly and became members of our community,” Debra Bowen said. “As a result of slavery, every Black person that came to this country were converted to Christianity. It sort of begs the question, what was our faith before we were converted? We were all indoctrinated in Christianity. Slaves cannot make choices.”
That belief may have drawn people in, but it was the spirituality and community that kept them coming back. Hope Pleasant, who lives around the corner from the synagogue, remains a member even though it was her mother, at age 16, who originally joined.
“I love the worship. I love the energy,” she said.
Tangela McClam, who lives in South Jersey, has been a member for more than 30 years. She said that when you miss a Shabbat or two, someone always calls to say they missed you. If you’ve had a baby, another member is going to come to your house to help you out.
“It goes from small, mundane, everyday things to bigger events, life events, birth of children, things like that,” McClam said.
Margaret Sunners, a white woman from Framingham, Massachusetts, belongs to Congregation Temple Beth’El even though she’s also a member at a synagogue near her home. Sunners and her husband, James, met some Beth’El congregants when they attended a service at a Black synagogue during a trip to Chicago.
They had started talking during the Oneg Shabbat, and it made Sunners realize that she was tired of going to synagogues where people “don’t even nod to each other.” The couple took a trip to Philly, attended a service and enjoyed the music and singing.
“I never saw such a spiritual community in my life,” she said. “We kept coming back.”