Rabbi Abel Respes is accustomed to strangers doing a double-take when they pass his synagogue in this quiet community in New Jersey's pinelands.

"Adat Beyt Mosheh Congregation," reads the sign outside the handsome building -- in English and Hebrew. But the faces of the worshipers are black.

Respes led his followers here 16 years ago from a North Philadelphia neighborhood 40 miles to the west that experienced dramatic poverty and crime after undergoing rapid racial change.

"We pooled our resources to buy the land and build our homes and the synagogue," Respes, 59, says. "We live something like people in Kibbutzim. Mortgage and utility bills are paid through a collective community tax."

The synagogue, which still attracts worshipers from the old neighborhood across the Delaware River, seats more than 150 people and boasts a spacious classroom, a well-equipped kitchen and a book-lined study for Respes.

Across the street are five immaculate ranch-style homes occupied by congregants. Two more houses are planned for families waiting to join the small settlement of about 40 residents.

All but two of the families are related to Respes. He and his wife Sarah have 14 children, eight still at home.

"We're not a cult," Respes says, adding that the congregation's ultimate dream is to immigrate to Israel.

To meet Israeli citizenship requirements, Respes and the other men, women and children underwnent formal rites of conversion to Judaism in 1971.

Respes grew up in North Philadelphia and worked at odd jobs after dropping out of school in the 10th grade. At 28, he was a food processor at the Campbell Soup factory in Camden.

"One Saturday night, I didn't go out to the bars as usual," he recalls "I was lying in my bed about midnight and was half asleep when I heard a voice saying, 'Seek God'."

He stumbled on a Jewish religious bookstore and devoured English translations of ancient scriptures, the Talmud, Jewish history and anything else about Judaism he could get his hands on. He even mastered Hebrew on his own.

After learning of the Marranos -- 15th century Spanish Jews who were forced to renounce their faith but continued to practice secretly -- he became convinced they were the root of his Spanish name.

"My father, who read the Bible but never went to church, once told me when I was 13 -- and should have been bar mitzvahed -- that we were different from other Negroes. We were Jews.

"Not all slaves brought to this country were from West Africa," he says. "Many of them were descendants of the Marranos who fled to North Africa during the Inquisition."

Respes founded Adat Beyt Mosheh Congregation in 1951. Members follow traditional Jewish law. Families practice strict kosher dietary rules and men and women are segregated in the synagogue during services.

Respes says hundreds of blacks in the United States are descendants of Jews who settled in Africa but were forced to practice Christianity after being sold into slavery.

"Unfortunately, to be recognized, we have to undergo conversion," he says. "Even then, many white Jewish congregations look at us kind of funny. I believe a Jew is someone who believes in the Jewish God and follows Jewish traditions."