By Jack Schweizer, Lincoln Park Jewish Center
Rabbi Levi Welton, Lincoln Park Jewish Center in Yonkers, hosted Orthodox Jewish African -American Hip-Hop artist Raphael “Hebro” Fulcher for a special performance of his musical talent and lecture on his personal background, in celebration of the annual Tu B’shvat ‘Festival of Trees’ Celebration.
When Raphael came to Friday night services, many of those who attended were surprised on the depth of his knowledge in Torah and Judaism since we were unfamiliar with his connection to the Rabbi and the depth of his devotion to the faith. During the Torah discussion phase of the evening services, he was very knowledgeable and easily conversant with the Rabbi on the Parsha to be read the following Shabbat day.
On Shabbat, Rabbi Welton conducted the service as he usually does but after the Torah reading, the ‘’davening’’ or recitation of the service, was turned over to Raphael. Not to diminish Rabbi Welton’s attributes, but Raphael brought the service to another level with his melodic and soulful voice. Scanning the Congregation, it appeared that all in attendance were mesmerized by his recitation and intonation of reading Hebrew with such passion. All were universally complimentary and wondering how this young Afro-American man developed into a devout and Orthodox Jew. The answer was played out that evening during the Tu B’shvat Seder.
As has been the custom for the past several years, Rabbi Welton conducted the seder with a booklet that described the blessings, customs and background of the Festival of Trees. All the attendees participated both in English and Spanish. A sumptuous kosher dinner followed, leading into the presentation and performance by Raphael Fulcher.
Mr. Fulcher gave a historical perspective of his family and how he evolved into a ‘’frum’’ Orthodox Jew as an African-American. It turns out that his family spans many generations back to the Civil War, when they were slaves and owned by a German- American named Fulcher. As many other slaves did, Raphael’s family assumed Fulcher as their last name but while in slavery, they adopted Judaism, seeking a spiritual connection to their plight. That carried on from generation to generation. Ultimately, the family moved to New York where they continued to practice Judaism, unfortunately with great difficulty.
However, their devotion to the faith and Torah did not diminish their commitment over many decades while establishing roots in New York City.
Raphael’s parents, established a professional relationship with a Lubavitch Rebbe in Brooklyn and influenced Raphael and his siblings to attend Orthodox Yeshivas to become more observant, even living in Israel to absorb the culture and religion there.
He had to reconcile his African-American heritage with his encounters of racism and exclusion in American society and elsewhere. Despite these obstacles, with a devotion to Judaism and his Hip-Hop/Rapper renditions of music, reflects his compassion and sincerity for maintaining his dignity throughout. Coincidentally, this Shabbat fell right before Martin Luther King Day commemoration. Once Raphael concluded his personal history, he sang several songs from his album that reflected his personna.
Rabbi Levi Welton observed that, Raphael has a powerful soul full of “fine, red wine”. “The great Talmudic luminary Rabbi Meir said, “Do not look at the jug, rather at what it contains”(Pirkei Avot 4:20). It doesn’t matter the color of your skin but rather, to quote MLK, ‘the content of your character.’”