By Nathan Pensky
Berkeley filmmaker Ben Schuder is looking to shine a light on a wholly unique American story, that of the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem. Schuder and his crew are midway through the production of Village of Peace, a film about a group formerly hailing from a Chicago-based church that emigrated from America and settled in Israel during the late 60s.
Schuder said he and his brother, Sam, were inspired to make the film after going on a Birthright Israel trip, following Ben’s recent graduation from Berkeley High.
During this trip, the brothers were introduced to the African Hebrews in Dimona, Israel, a tightly knit, self-governing community of 500 people living on a compound the size of a city block.
Schuder says he and Sam visited the community on its biggest festival of the year — Unity Day. “And we just couldn’t stop asking questions.”
Schuder, who earned his filmmaking chops at Berkeley High’s CAS course, was soon joined by a three other filmmakers — Jack Madigan, Aaron McCreary, and Niko Philipides — all of whom were raised in Berkeley and went through the city’s public school system, and the team returned to Dimona for 12 days to shoot their film.
Certainly the community of African Hebrews living in Dimona is a rich subject matter for a documentary film. Believing themselves to be descendants of the biblical Tribe of Judah, the African Hebrews settled in Israel through temporary visas in 1967. Though they have lived there ever since, they were disallowed entitlement under Israel’s Law of Return, and are not officially recognized by mainstream Judaism. Only in 2009 did the first African Hebrew gain Israeli citizenship, with most members recognized as “permanent residents.” Members began to adhere to Israel’s mandatory military enrollment eight years ago.
“It was a village decision to start sending their kids to serve in the military,” said Schuder. “Part of this was because they wanted to improve relations with Israel, and their love for the country.”
When asked if he got a sense of nationalism with Israel within the African Hebrew community, Schuder replied, “Yes. They stand strongly with Israel. However, they’re also critical of a lot of their policies. But the bottom line is that they consider themselves to be Israeli.”
While the African Hebrews follow their own distinctive interpretation of Judaic texts, and adhere to strict codes of conduct, they no longer self-identify as a religious group. “They don’t consider themselves to be religious at all,” said Schuder. “One of the things we found when we talked to them is that they don’t consider their beliefs a religion, though they follow the Torah…similarly to Orthodox Judaism. They self-identify as Hebrews. According to them, ‘Hebrew’ is a wider, [more culturally-defined] term.”
However, the group’s practices include a vegan diet, enforced curfews during the Sabbath, exercise regimens, and polygamist marriages. In our conversation, Schuder indicated the group has recently made steps to abolish the practice of polygamy, in conjunction with the Israeli government.
Village of Peace focuses on the African Hebrews in Dimona through the eyes of four community residents, whom Schuder refers to as the film’s “main characters.” Among these are Nasik “Prince” Hiskiyahu, the first African Hebrew to touch Israeli soil in 1967, who had scouted the region for the community for two years prior to the group’s exodus from Chicago, as well as Aturah Tekiah, a sister-wife in a polygamist union.
While the African Hebrews’ belief systems have long courted controversy within mainstream Judaism, Schuder spoke of them in terms of their generosity of spirit, hospitality, and openness.
Schuder said his team has been fortunate in getting valuable guidance from local filmmaking talent. “We have been in talks and gaining advice from some Oscar-winning sound editors who live in Berkeley,” he said. The group also launched its Berkeley-based company, Affinity Vision Entertainment, earlier this year.
Village of Peace is currently in post-production and seeking investment through Kickstarter to complete sound and color editing. Once it is finished, the hope is the film will be shown at festivals, including the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.
Berkeleyside publishes many articles every day. To see all our stories in chronological order, and read ones you may have missed, check out our recently launched All the News grid.