Rachaayaqam, a Hebrew Israelite, preaching at Oxford Circus
It’s not often you meet religious fanatics who don't want you to join their team. Whether it’s abrasive, slut-shaming Evangelicals or polite men in khaki trousers knocking on your door in the name of Jehovah, the general consensus among more radical believers is that the entire world would be better off living under their doctrine.
Of course, when young men get hooked on religion, everything gets a little more amplified: All the excess energy that would otherwise be spent on chasing booze, girls, and parties is instead channeled into spreading the Word. I discovered this firsthand at the end of last year when I bumped into a group of preachers in Central London who were noticeably younger than the usual sort you’d see telling strangers that they’re destined to spend eternity in hell.
Another factor to set this lot apart from, say, Anjem Choudary or that Bruce Jenner look-alike with the megaphone on Oxford Street is that they weren’t touting the teachings of any of the Big Five. Instead, they were preaching the message of a much more arcane faith: the message of the Hebrew Israelites.
Despite sharing many of the same ideologies and practices, Hebrew Israelites don’t identify as Jewish and, in turn, generally aren’t recognized as such by the wider Jewish community. Instead, they consider themselves the only authentic descendants of Israelites from the historic Kingdom of Israel. Their beliefs can vary considerably from strict Jewish ideals to a strict Christian philosophy, depending on how they choose to interpret their scriptures, which consist of the New Testament, the Torah, and other Israelite writings. Mix all that with a fixation on Judgment Day and you’re left with the melting pot of spiritualism, conspiracy theories, and militant obligation to spread the Word that I encountered in Oxford Circus one cold Saturday morning last winter.
“We preach about the coming of the Kingdom of Israel,” said Ramah, who appeared to be the group’s unofficial spokesman. “We are commanded to [preach] in the scriptures in order to get to the Gates of the Nobles, and then that’s where everyone’s going to hear the truth.”
While devotion as intense as Ramah’s is fascinating from an anthropological standpoint, I don’t think I’m quite prepared to convert just yet. When I explained this to him, he assured me that many of the consumer lemmings who pass him on Oxford Street every Saturday aren’t ready either. “Generally, I think people are more interested in their shopping and their daily lives,” he said. “We are concerned with spiritual matters and things like that, and I don’t think a lot of people are concerned with spiritual matters in this day and age.”
(From left to right) Rachaayaqam, Pahshaahla, and Ramah in Regent's Park. Photo by Ashton Hertz
Before I left, Ramah told me that everyone should have an interest in spirituality and that we should always question what life is about. There are presumably plenty of young adults who do just that, but not all of them give up their weekends to persuade others to do so. I wanted to find out what first motivated this group of teens and twentysomethings (none of them would tell me their exact ages) to forego Saturday-morning FIFA tournaments and wake-and-bakes in order to stand in the cold and wave signs at shoppers, so I went to meet with them again in Regent’s Park.
Unfortunately, they weren’t that forthcoming when I asked how they initially got into preaching—whether they had picked it up from a family member, or if there was an older kid at school who’d been something of a religious role model. The most illuminating response I got was when I asked whether any of them came from religious families. “Yeah, you could say that—Christian-based backgrounds,” said one, sheepishly.
Similarly, they didn’t seem keen to divulge much information about their lives outside of the preaching. Questions like “What do you do apart from this?” and “Do you work?” and “How did you all meet each other?” were met with incredibly vague answers or just shut down altogether. Guessing that they were only there to discuss their teachings, I brought up a group of middle-aged Hebrew Israelites I’d seen in Tottenham. Unlike the Oxford Circus troupe, the older preachers were hurling out racist and homophobic slurs, raving about Usain Bolt wearing a dress in a Virgin Media advert and telling people to fuck off in the middle of the street.
“Yeah, we know those guys—they used to do it here with us,” said Ramah. “They do their thing, and we do ours.”
I clearly wasn’t going to get anywhere with that, either.
Changing tack, I asked the group what strain of Hebrew Israelite beliefs they follow—which reading of the scripture they have chosen to adhere to. Much of what they told me sounded like fairly vanilla Christian ideals, until we got onto the subject of Judgment Day.
“According to the Bible, the world will end with World War III between Russia and their allies versus America and NATO,” explained Rachaayaqam, who had previously been the quietest of the bunch but turned out to be both pretty chatty and one of the most likeable. “The words NATO and Russia weren’t around when the Bible was written,” he continued. “It was written in an ancient form, so it does say this, but you have to have the understanding to see it. That’s why we’re out on the street—we show people that this is what’s going to happen according to the Bible. If they accept that, then that’s good. If they don’t accept the prophecies, then that’s their problem.”
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Pahshaahla and Ramah debunking Christian "myths" at Coventry Cathedral
A lot of the group’s ideals are cemented in the idea that the apocalypse is imminent. That might seem like a pretty morbid way to live your life, but the young preachers assured me that the end of life as we know it is something they are looking forward to rather than fearing.
“I don’t fear the end of the world, because to have a new beginning you have to have an end, know what I’m saying?” asked Ramah. “I don’t fear the end of the world—I fear this world going on. We don’t have the viewpoint that this [world] is utopia or heaven; in fact, most people are learning that it isn’t.”
The new beginning the group believes in will supposedly come after the fall of what they call the Anglo-American empire. Pahshaahla, another quiet member, chipped in every now and then to elaborate. “We’re looking forward to the end because this world is just wicked,” he said. “The kind of work we’ve got to do to get money is ridiculous, and there are no jobs either.”
Rachaayaqam reiterated the point: “The animals are dying off, the water’s polluted, the air’s polluted, the food is polluted, and poverty is at an all-time high.”
"The real image of Jesus Christ according to the Bible."
A few weeks after our Regent’s Park meeting I got an unexpected early-morning phone call from Ramah. During our first encounter, Rachaayaqam had insisted that the group's beliefs had nothing to do with race—that they weren’t “black Hebrew Israelites,” as the sect is often referred to, but simply “Hebrew Israelites” who had “inherited [their] identity.” Ramah continued this discussion over the phone, explaining that when the new empire is formed by the Israelites, all other races will be damned to 1,000 years of slavery as punishment for the way they have treated the Israelites. After this incredibly depressing millennium, every race will then live in peace with one another for the rest of time.
“At the end of the day, bruv, if you read the scriptures, when King Solomon was in power there was peace on earth for 40 years,” said Ramah. “The time we’re living in is not like that at all… We want to see paradise on Earth, but this is not the time.”
After a number of months trying to figure out the Oxford Circus Hebrew Israelites, I realized that the devotion to their beliefs was perhaps just a symptom of the planet we live on. They spoke regularly of pollution and unemployment—two problems that bother a lot of people. However, most don’t tend to deal with those issues by relying on an apocalypse that will enslave the vast majority of the world’s population until everything’s sorted out again.
Or maybe believing that the end of the world is fast-approaching is just more exciting than accepting that capitalism’s reign will simply chug along for another thousand years, while humanity continues to die and repopulate—instantly, endlessly, and meaninglessly.
Rachaayaqam holding a sign that warns of World War III
Of course, that’s just speculation. Considering they weren’t willing to discuss anything past face value, all I know for certain is that they really do believe the Bible talks about Russia dropping bombs on the States.
On my last visit, I finally got a brief insight into who they are outside of their preaching. A couple of them insinuated that they have girlfriends and normal jobs, and explained that they don’t preach at work. Ramah then told me that they had started calling me Jake—short for Jacob, which would be my Israelite name if I’d decided to convert. Whether they were joking or not, it felt like a nice gesture.
That said, just as I was beginning to get my head around the group—seeing the humans behind the one-dimensional preachers I’d first run into—Pahshaahla said something that threw me off the trail: “Another thing I should mention is the microchip. That’s another thing that will come along to signal the end of the world," he started. "It says in the 13th chapter of Revelation that the microchip will go in the right hand. When there’s no food out there, the government is going to administer the chip, and it means you’re committing to this society. That’s what we call the Mark of the Beast.”
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