Black Rabbi Reaches Out to Mainstream of His Faith
By NIKO KOPPEL
CHICAGO — Having grown up in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Capers C. Funnye Jr. was encouraged by his pastor to follow in his footsteps. Instead, he became a rabbi.
His congregation on the Far Southwest Side of Chicago is predominantly black, and while services include prayers and biblical passages in Hebrew, the worshipers sometimes break into song, swaying back and forth like a gospel choir.
As the first African-American member of the Chicago Board of Rabbis and of numerous mainstream Jewish organizations, Rabbi Funnye (pronounced fun-AY) is on a mission to bridge racial and religious divisions by encouraging Chicago’s wider Jewish community to embrace his followers — the more than 200 members of Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation.
“I am a Jew,” said Rabbi Funnye, “and that breaks through all color and ethnic barriers.”
As a teenager, Rabbi Funnye said he felt disconnected and dissatisfied with his Methodist faith. He embarked on a spiritual journey, investigating other religions, including Islam, before turning to Judaism. He said he found a sense of intellectual and spiritual liberation in Judaism because it encourages constant examination. “The Jew has always questioned,” he said.
Like their rabbi, a majority of Beth Shalom’s members came to Judaism later in life, after wrestling with contradictions and questions that they found in their own earlier beliefs. Many refer to their religious experience as reversion, rather than conversion, and feel a cultural connection to the lost tribes of Israel. They say that Judaism has renewed their sense of personal identity.
There are no firm national statistics on the number of African-American Jews, said Gary Tobin, president of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research. Usually referred to as Israelites or Hebrews, they have historically been seen to stand apart in theology and observance from the nation’s approximately 5.3 million Jews, mainly of Ashkenazi, or European, ancestry, and have largely been ignored by the broader Jewish community. Rabbi Funnye hopes to change that by speaking about his congregation at synagogues throughout Chicago and across the country.
“I believe that people cannot know you unless you make yourself known,” he said. “The only way to do that is to step outside and not fear rejection.”
To spread his message, he also serves on the boards of the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs and the American Jewish Congress of the Midwest. In addition, he is active in the Institute for Jewish and Community Research, focusing on reaching out to other communities of black Jews around the world, including the Falashas in Ethiopia and the Igbo in Nigeria.
Occupying a former Ashkenazi synagogue, Beth Shalom is in the Marquette Park neighborhood. It is just blocks from where Chicago’s Nazi party used to march and where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was struck by a rock while protesting against segregated housing in 1966.
The congregation was founded in 1918 as the Ethiopian Hebrew Settlement Workers Association by Rabbi Horace Hasan from Bombay. Members include some Hispanics, African-Americans and whites who were born Jews, as well as former Christians and Muslims. In line with traditional Jewish law, Beth Shalom does not seek out converts, and members must study for a year before undergoing a traditional conversion ritual. Men are required to be circumcised, and women undergo a ritual bath in a mikvah.
Many worshipers feel that their devotion to Judaism is misunderstood.
“When the broader community thinks of a Jew,” Dinah Levi said, “we don’t fit the profile.” Ms. Levi, 57, raised as a Baptist, is vice president of Beth Shalom, where she said she feels at home with spiritual elements that incorporate the African-American experience. “Since we are a varied people as written in the Torah,” she said, “I think the religion can be embraced by a multitude of people.”
Beth Shalom’s service is somewhere between Conservative and Modern Orthodox observance with distinctive African-American influences. Men and women sit separately as the liturgy is read in English and Hebrew. Some members kiss their prayer shawls, pointing to the Torah, as is the practice in traditional synagogues. A chorus sings spirituals over the beat of a drum.
Across America, black congregations have been active since the early 20th century. In the past, efforts to reach out to the mainstream Jewish community have been met with suspicion and rejection, said Lewis R. Gordon, the director of the Center of Afro-Jewish Studies at Temple University. That is why many groups stay separatist, aligning themselves more with black nationalism than with traditional Jewish groups.
“People ask me, ‘As if you aren’t already in a bad enough situation being black, why would you want to be Jewish?’ ” said Tamar Manasseh, 29, a lifelong member of Beth Shalom.
Ms. Manasseh, wearing a Star of David around her neck, attended Jewish day school and is currently planning her daughter’s bat mitzvah. “I can’t change being Jewish just the same way I can’t change being black,” she said. Close to completing her rabbinic studies, she will be among the first black women to be ordained as a rabbi, according to Rabbi Funnye, her mentor.
After a Saturday service, Rabbi Funnye has a quiet moment in his office. On the wall is a 1930s black-and-white photograph of members of an African-American congregation. The men, all in prayer shawls, look out before an opened Torah. “We’re not going anywhere,” said Rabbi Funnye, smiling confidently, “I’m going to reach out until you reach back.”
An excellent story.