Chasidic-Like Area Blacks Mourn Loss Alan H. Feiler Managing Editor MARCH 03, 2006 George McDaniel, spiritual leader of Congregation Beth HaShem, a local African-American group that fuses Jewish practices and Chasidic garb with beliefs associated with Messianic Judaism, died Feb. 14 of a massive heart attack. He was 54. Mr. McDaniel, who graced the cover of the Baltimore Jewish Times in a November 1993 profile of Beth HaShem, was the founder and guiding force of the congregation, which was then based in an East Baltimore rowhouse. Beth HaShem, which now holds Shabbat services at the Best Inn in White Marsh, has approximately 50 families, all of whom are African-American. George McDaniel Congregant Sean J. Barrett said Mr. McDaniel - who also went by the Hebrew name of Gershom Ben Daniel - died while en route by ambulance to Maryland General Hospital. Mr. McDaniel, a Baltimore native, was living in Reservoir Hill. "It's beyond devastating for us," Mr. Barrett said of Mr. McDaniel's death. "We all have to deal with death and meet that point in our lives, but we didn't expect this to happen. The rabbi had some health problems, but we didn't know to what extent. He didn't complain a lot, so we thought everything was OK." As a teacher, counselor and role model, he said Mr. McDaniel - who was known by congregants simply as "the rebbe" and could periodically be seen at area Jewish congregations- was a catalyst for profound personal and spiritual development. "I grew up in a Christian home, but I always felt something was missing," Mr. Barrett said. "What the rabbi taught me about the Torah really spoke to my soul. He changed my life. He took profound and deep subjects and gave them to us in a way that seemed easy to understand." As African-Americans who dress and pray as traditional Jews, Beth HaShem members say they are often misunderstood and even castigated by both communities. But Mr. McDaniel led the way to promoting understanding, dialogue and self-determination, according to Mr. Barrett. "We're a tight-knit congregation. We have only each other, and that's why this hurts so much," he said. "You feel like you've lost a parent. You always feel like there's a void." Dona Clapperton, Beth HaShem's secretary, echoed that sentiment. "You never imagine the passing of your spiritual leader. It's a real blow," she said. "No one can expound on Torah the way he did. I feel a tremendous amount of loss. When your rabbi passes, all of his wisdom goes with him. You can't replace that. "He was abba to our mishpachah. We've lost our leader, but not our passion for obedience to Torah." Beth HaShem was founded in 1983 by Mr. McDaniel, a gentle, soft-spoken man with a penchant for quoting Scripture in conversation. He said he was ordained in the mid-1970s by Eliezer Wright, a deceased African-American Jewish leader from West Baltimore. In the 1993 cover story on Beth HaShem, Mr. McDaniel said he could trace his Jewish lineage to the "Syrian captivity of Israel." He said his father's family moved from the Middle East to Ireland 2,000 years ago and immigrated here at the turn of the 20th century, while his mother's family came to the United States as slaves who practiced Judaism. "We want to educate people that some, but not all, blacks could be descendants of Jews," Mr. McDaniel said in the Baltimore Jewish Times article. "We have an aching to be with our people, whether white or black, but we won't beg or be second-class citizens. I believe God is calling on Ethiopia - black Jewry - to arise during the last days." While the congregation uses an Artscroll siddur, dresses in Chasidic attire and veils, and observes Jewish holidays and practices, members incorporate a belief in the divinity of Yeshua - Hebrew for Jesus - in their theology. The congregation does not maintain ties with other religious movements or congregations. Congregants said that Mr. McDaniel spent most of his time learning Talmud at home and studying computer programs dealing with such Jewish concepts as gematriah, the numerical interpretation of the Torah. His study group discussions centered on concepts and ideas drawn from the Zohar and Talmud, as well as the Christian Bible. "I know there are criteria set in the Jewish community for being considered a rabbi, but I view a rabbi as a teacher. That's what I am," Mr. McDaniel said. Michael Ben Daniel, a former Beth HaShem congregant not related to Mr. McDaniel, said he had a mesmerizing effect on his followers. "We could sit there for four or five hours, and we didn't want to leave," said Mr. Ben Daniel, who now lives in Utica, N.Y. "He had a good grasp of the words and spirit. He taught us how to study and extrapolate. It's an experience I'll never forget." Congregant Leonard Hall, who said he was ordained by Mr. McDaniel and has led services over the past couple years, will assume pastoral responsibilities at Beth HaShem. "He was a powerful man. He was my mentor," he said of Mr. McDaniel. "What he did was give us a better understanding of what the Tanach was saying. He showed us and pointed us in the direction of the Torah." Mr. Hall said the congregation's mission now is to continue Mr. McDaniel's lifework. "We'll stay in the same direction. We won't fall apart," he said. "We lost our teacher, but he prepared me to guide the congregation." Said Mr. Barrett: "It's our mission to continue all that he taught us, that it will not go in vain." Mr. McDaniel was buried at Mount Olive Cemetery in Randallstown. He is survived by his wife, Terry, and eight children.