Karaite Reaches North American Finals at Tanakh Competition

James (Ya'aqov) Walker at the International Tanakh competition

James (Ya’aqov) Walker at the International Tanakh competition in November 2014.

I first started corresponding with James Walker about eight years ago, when I was still in law school and he was interested in converting to Judaism through the Karaite movement.

To be frank, I was inspired by the fact that Karaite Judaism could link a California-descendant of Egyptian Karaites and a black man from the South. And to be even more frank, I was immediately impressed with his knowledge of Hebrew and Scripture – which far surpassed mine.

James’ knowledge of the Tanakh recently earned him a place in the North American finals in the State of Israel’s Tanakh competition, and today I catch up with him about his experience at the finals in New York this past November.


James, his wife LeAndra and their two children officially converted to Judaism at the Karaite synagogue in Daly City, CA in 2013. I am hoping that his family makes a return visit soon. In the meantime, I enjoy reading his insights on the various Karaite forums; and you’ll have to settle for learning about him through this post.

1. What were the highlights of your trip to New York for the contest?

It was a pleasant surprise to be among the top finalists for North America in the State of Israel’s International Tanakh Competition, especially since the World Zionist Organization (which sponsors the event) made sure that my wife and I were able to travel without worrying about the costs of the trip itself.

The behind-the-scenes orientation and written quiz were conducted mainly in Hebrew, as part of an effort to encourage adoption of the Hebrew language abroad to strengthen ties between American and Israeli communities.

The most encouraging aspect of this whole experience was to see a synagogue full of Orthodox Jews buzzing with excitement at a competition that requires a deep familiarity with the Miqra.

2. What is your favorite biblical passage?

Yehoshu’a (Joshua) 1:8 – “This scroll of the Torah shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, that you may observe to do according to all that is written in it; for then you will make your way successful, and then you will become intelligent.”

I have always loved this verse because it shows that studying Torah (which, unfortunately, other denominations of Judaism have often overlooked) is the key to intelligence and success.

3. What were the most memorable parts about your first trip to Israel?

In June 2013, I joined UNC-Charlotte on their archaeological excavation of the section of the Old City’s walls near Zion Gate, and I had the ability to live for several days in the guest house of the Anan ben David Karaite Synagogue in Jerusalem.

I was able to worship the way pilgrims have done for a 1,000 years at the Karaite synagogue in Jerusalem, and to also make the 6-minute journey to the Kotel as frequently as my schedule allowed. The experience was one I will remember for the rest of my life.

I was also able to meet with a number of local and national Karaite leaders, including Neria HaRoeh and Hakham Moshe Firrouz, and meet with Ethiopian Israeli elders and priests to discuss their approach to the Miqra.

Orthodox filmmaker and producer Simcha Jacobovici was my host in the Tel-Aviv area. He invited me to attend my first Orthodox synagogue over one Shabbat. He respects my decision to choose the Karaites – himself being a ba’al teshuvah – and I shared my respect for the balance that most Rabbanites in America and Israel are trying to make with tradition and ancient sources.

4. What were your impressions of the Karaite communities you met in Daly City, CA and in Israel?

I observed a profound sense of antiquity and consistency when I attended Karaite worship services with both communities. These services represent a high standard for discipline and decorum that may be challenging for those unaccustomed to liturgical worship; but with time, I hope that liturgical worship will be afforded the same kind of reverence that other forms of Eastern spiritual expression have achieved among non-Orthodox Jews.

5. You are not a native Hebrew speaker; so how did you learn Hebrew?

As a mathematically-inclined person, I discovered that the most efficient way to learn vocabulary and grammatical forms was to learn in order of decreasing frequency. In His wisdom, God delivered the Torah in such a way that the 50 most common root words are used to convey about 50% of the derived terms used in the Torah, and that memorizing the 300 most frequent terms (1 word a day for about 10 months) is all that is needed to have 90% literacy. As it is written: “For the word is very near to you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may do it.” (Deut. 30:14)

[Editor’s Note: I’ve got to get my hands on this list!]

*   *   *

Well, there you have it. I sincerely hope to see James and his family soon. James wishes there were more Karaite synagogues across the U.S., and that he lived closer to one. But his distance from a Karaite synagogue has not stopped James from being involved in a Torah observant congregation. James tells me that since 2002, the Walkers have been an active part of a predominantly Black Hebrew synagogue in Charlotte, whose members attended similar synagogues in Brooklyn for generations. According to James, these congregants left NYC after 9/11 to find a safer environment to raise their families in the same Biblical faith that was practiced by Jews in Egypt and Ethiopia. James says that they have consistently used the Karaite calendar for about 15 years.

James is also interested in translating classical Karaite texts; perhaps he and the Karaite Jews of America can team up and do something similar to Mikdash Me’at. . . .


Filed under James Walker, Karaite Jews of America, Karaite Rabbanite Relations, Karaites in Israel, Moshe Firrouz

15 Responses to Karaite Reaches North American Finals at Tanakh Competition

  1. ilanb

    Im confused. Converted to Judaism? That like the Pope converting someone to Protestantism. Its any Oxymoron. If you converted to Judaism then you have to tow the Judaic line. Why is Judaism and Karaism being mixed together. They are two totally distinct paths for the inidviual. If you have joined the nation of Israel then your are not Jewish but a part of the greater nation, composed of Jews, Karaites, Samaritans etc.

    And pardon me, Black Hebrews also know as Black Israelites, think they are the true “Jews” and the rest of Jewish people are white usurpers and phonies, so Im curious what it is he was preached regards this, as he mentions Egypt and Ethiopia, African Nations. There were Karaites in Babylonia and other places in the Mesopotamian area. Or where they Black also?

    This is too weird. Judaism has its own standards when it comes to conversion and that includes the Oral Law. Karaism naturally would not be converting anybody to being a Jew, but a member of the nation of Israel who practices the Torah as closely as one can in these days, people like this are called Karaites not. Jew and Karaite are nnot interchangeable. You can call someone Roman Catholic and the less flattering term “Papist” But Karaism has to stand on its own. Nobody calls the Shomronim Samaritan Jews, but I recognize them as brothers who practice the Torah by similarly reading the Text at face value and a part of our nation. And performing the Seder true to the Torahs prescription.

    If I err please correct me. This is really confusing. Yaqub is indeed a wonderful treasure to have acquired, but this whole conversion to Judaism? History has already assingned Judaism to those who follow the Oral law and edicts of the Rabbis to either a greater or lesser degree. So why is someone seeking to become a Karaite converted to “Judaism” when that is not the underlying basis of the Karaite belief, in fact in most places its antitheses.

    • Shlomo

      ilanb — For your analogy to apply you would have to say, “like the Pope converting someone to Christianity.” But Christianity includes Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant, the latter having Low Church Evangelicals and High Church bodies such as Anglican and Lutheran. Likewise, Judaism includes Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist and Karaite Jews.

  2. Azriel

    Great article Shawn! If you get that list of Hebrew verbs please pass it on!

  3. rn

    “Judaism” is used to refer to the religion as a whole, which includes Rabbinic Judaism and Karaite Judaism. “Judaism” does not refer to one specific flavor in this context, but to a wider palette of flavors, just as Rabbinic Judaism encompasses several variations of its own.

    Referring to your third paragraph, how familiar are you with the history of Jews, Judaism, and especially concerning the relationship of Karaite Jews and Rabbinic Jews over the centuries? Karaites used to be a significant portion of world Jewry, though they have declined greatly in numbers over the past 800-1000 years. Karaites are definitely Jews, and the whole history of both the Karaites and the Rabbinites is quite fascinating.

    As for your paragraph on the Black Hebrew Israelites, I did not see anywhere in the article which described Mr. Walker as being a member of BHI, which are their own religious group. From what I understand, Mr. Walker describes himself as a Karaite. This reminds me of people who fall into the same logically fallacy by describing any black man who lives, and are from, the United Kingdom or from France, Germany, etc., as “African-American,” which they would not be. I’m confused as to why you are associating Mr. Walker as BHI when he describes himself as Karaite. If he describes himself differently, I have yet to see it.

    I do agree with you on Mr. Walker being “a wonderful treasure to have acquired”. His talent and dedication is something many can aspire to, and we are blessed to have such people as him.

  4. rn

    Re word lists,
    I did a search just now and found this Hebrew word list sorted by frequency. There are two main sections. The first are verbs (582 of them). The second are nouns (401 of them). Each of the main sections have the words sorted by frequency with sub-sections indicating the approximate number of times they appear in TNK. For example, the first 26 most common verbs are used between 500 and 5000 times, while verbs 27 through 63 are used between 200 and 500 times, and so on.

    Note: I did notice a typo on the very first page, for #26, שמע, the definition is listed as “Heat, Give ear to”; obviously that first word should be “Hear” so I would suggest using this list (or, really, any list) as just a guide on frequency (which words to tackle first), while using a good dictionary or lexicon to study each of the words further. Plus, learning, or at least reading, a verse or more which uses each word I imagine will also be helpful in memorizing and getting the feel of each word. If one follows Mr. Walker’s idea of learning one word each day, I believe it should be fairly easy to really remember and have a very good feel for each of the words.

    The list can be found at (in PDF file format):

  5. Scott

    Hello, I am wondering if you got your hand on that list? If so, would be willing to share it?

  6. Rachamim Dwek

    Unable to find a Torah-observant shul he worships with Black Hebrews??? The group is a racist cult who believes anyone who has light skin is inherently evil. Rather then praying in the company of sacrireligous people he would have been much, much more well served by simply remaining home and worshipping alone.

    Just because someone calls themself a Hebrew, just as his conversion does not make them a Jew because of the fact that since he converted through Karaitism he would not be considered Jewish except by fellow Karites. I reckon it evens out though.

    Also, knowledge means next to nothing without understanding and wisdom. A parrot can repeat what it hears but has no understanding of the words. Memourising Tanach is great but without understanding and wisdom it is an empty achievement, akin to hopping up and down for an hour and comparing it to someone who walked a great distance.

    Lastly, a list of frequent words isnt going to teach him or anyone else much of anything. In the Torah, aside from idiomatic definitions escaping such a person’s knowledge easily, a word’s definition is entirely dependent upon its context and requires a connect-a-dots approach. That approach requires decades of constant study and is difficult even for those of us educated religiously in Hebrew.

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