Of late, model Yoshevah Jones has become one of the most in-demand faces in Tel Aviv, which held its own Fashion Week this month. She is captivating, with almond-shaped eyes, long lashes, and a septum ring for a touch of offbeat cool. Like many young Netflix-obsessed Israelis, Jones, who spent this season walking shows like Comme Il Faut and Dorin Frankfurt, speaks perfect English.
Her slang is current and and is rendered with no trace of an Israeli accent. When I talk to her over lunch, I feel like I’m back in New York with a fellow American, until she switches to Hebrew to order an orange juice.
Jones’s modeling rise is of particular note, given her unique background. Though the local fashion industry has historically cast diverse models on its runways, Jones is from the Black Hebrews, a group that settled in Israel in 1969. The movement was founded in Chicago by Ben Ammi Ben-Israel (born Ben Carter), who considered it a radical exit from America during the height of the civil rights movement. (He referred to America as the “Land of Captivity.”)
During the 1960s, Ben-Israel shared a vision that an angel had come to him and urged him to bring black Americans to settle in Israel; he also claimed that Black Hebrews were the descendants of Israelites. A small group of 400 black Americans, mostly from Chicago, came through Liberia in 1967, where they spent two years, and then eventually moved on to the small town of Dimona, about two hours north of Tel Aviv. Jones’s family were some of the first inhabitants: Her mother immigrated at age 17. Now, the community is estimated to be about 4,000 strong.
Elements of their spiritual religion may be Jewish, but Black Hebrews were not eligible to claim citizenship under Israel’s Law of Return, which allows those who have Jewish ancestry to immigrate. As one of the first black communities to settle in Israel, they faced widespread discrimination—and still do. As a result, their relationship with Israeli society is largely fractured. “I’ve always felt different being around the Israeli society, mainly because in the community they made sure to tell us that we were different,” says Jones. Despite relative isolation from the general population, Jones was taught in Hebrew along with her secular studies at a school in Dimona.
Jones separated herself from the community at 18 when she made the decision to join the army and then obtain her Israeli citizenship. (The Israeli government made an agreement with the Black Hebrews in 2003 that if members joined the army, they could become Israeli citizens and live and work in the country legally; in the ’90s they were granted temporary resident status.) “There was no way I could be in this closed community. I thought there was more to life,” she says. “Everyone thinks the army is their way out.” For four years, she worked as a communications technician and was able to meet other Israelis from a variety of different backgrounds—an experience that opened her eyes to different lifestyles ranging from secular to Orthodox.
Jones explains that she still has a feeling of otherness and at times, she doesn’t know which culture she fits into; she has not been to the U.S. and so considers Israel home by default. “It is hard: You don’t belong here and you don’t fit in over there,” she says of her Israeli and American identity. “I don’t feel on this side or that side. I don’t know where I belong.” That said, modeling has helped her build confidence and find some middle ground. “It has taught me in a way that I am enough the way I am,” she says, adding, “I have really learned to accept myself more.”