What does a Jew look like? Ask Rabbi Capers Funnye
Funnye, the first African-American member of the Chicago Board of Rabbis, is an interfaith activist who believes Judaism must shed its labels and embrace the diversity of its global peoplehood.
Meet Rabbi Capers Funnye, the rabbi of Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation of Chicago, the first African-American member of the Chicago Board of Rabbis, co-founder of the Alliance of Black Jews, and first cousin once removed of Michelle Obama.
The 59-year-old from South Carolina met up recently with a former Haaretz intern to give us an inside look at his work with the global Jewish community.
You grew up in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. How did you come into Judaism?
One day, in my senior year of high school, the pastor at my church pulled me aside. He said he’d been watching me and suggested that I consider going into the ministry. I told him it was interesting that he stopped me, because I’d been thinking hard about what we’d learned and practiced, and I was confused.
My confusion came chiefly from the holiday of Easter, and the time of the resurrection. Growing up, as I celebrated the holiday, I kept asking myself “if Jesus was God, and God was killed and gone for three days, then what happened to the world in that time? Who was in charge?”
That started me on my journey, back in 1970. I began studying Judaism two years later in college and just continued to study. I met a group of young men from an African American congregation and studied with them. Then I met Rabbi Levy in 1979. It was ironic because just as the pastor of my church told me ten years earlier that he thought I’d make a good minister, my teacher said he needed good educated men to come into the rabbinate and that I’d be a good rabbi. So I asked my wife, and by 1985 I was ordained.
In an interview with the New York Times, you once said you felt less like you were “converting” to and more like you were “reverting” to Judaism. What did you mean by that?
Yes, it felt more like returning. I’ve been traveling through Africa, and I’ve come into contact with so many different groups who’ve affirmed my belief in this, like the Igbo from Nigeria, Cameroon and Ghana. These communities have certain rites they practice that are very akin to biblical Judaism, like brit mila on the eighth day. Many of them eat “biblically kosher” according to the laws found in Leviticus 11, and they see themselves as part of the House of Israel.
On one trip, my wife and I were greeted by the Obi, a local king. As he was calling the village elders, he took out a shofar. At first we thought, “Ok, it’s a common instrument.” But then he blew Tikiyah. Then he blew Shevarim. My wife and I looked at each other and we started chuckling. We asked him where he learned the notes, and he said he had no idea, they were just handed down to him.
Tell me about the work you do with the Pan-African Jewish Alliance?
There are roughly 30 communities I’ve been assisting as a spiritual leader in Nigeria and across Africa. My dream is to help bring interested communities back into normative Judaism, to make them part of the Jewish people, because that’s what many of them want.
I was in South Africa this September, and met with a body of elders who said they knew culturally who they were but had an interest in returning to Judaism as practicing Jews. They were maintaining themselves as Jews and some even kept Shabbat, but they were asking for assistance in the process of reading, learning and teaching so they could be reconnected with the House of Israel. They never had rabbinic halakhah, they weren’t familiar with the Talmud or midrashim, and they didn’t have Hebrew. Being 1500 miles away from Israel, they lost the language, but they feel they have ancient connections to the house of Israel.
Where is that dialogue today? What sort of obstacles do you face in that integration?
The dialogue is definitely going forward. We’ve always been a global people. The main challenge is that there are so many branches of Judaism. It’s unfortunate. When I first went to Nigeria, the men had on black hats and they said “we’re Orthodox,” because they thought wearing black hats made them Orthodox Jews. Personally, I respect all branches of Judaism, but when we have branches, those spell divisions and divisiveness. How about we just have Judaism, no label, just “Jews”? I don’t want to try to identify myself with only one segment of the Jewish people, but all of them. And rabbis from all denominations have been willing to teach and assist with these communities with the process of return, reversion or conversion to the Jewish people from many denominations.
You’re also working in the U.S., as the chief rabbi of Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation in Chicago. Can you tell me a bit about that congregation?
We just turned 93. The congregation is not affiliated with any denomination, and we have a very diverse congregation. I’ve been in this position since 1991. My immediate predecessor, Rabbi Abihu Ben Reuben, served from 1947 until he died at the age of 89. We have Africans, African Americans, Ashkenazi Jews, B’nai Anusim, Filipinos, Latinos, Sephardim, and Jews from the Caribbean.
Our congregation has been embraced by the broader Jewish community here in the city. We do pulpit exchanges, our choir performs at other shuls, and our shofar team is doing an interfaith gathering. We’re very involved in interfaith work, and I also work personally with Reform, Conservative, Modern Orthodox, Reconstructionist, and even Lubavitch Jews.
You also founded the Alliance of Black Jews. What kind of work is done there?
We do a lot of interracial, interfaith dialogue, especially with Protestant and Catholics. I believe all faith communities must do what we can to create understandings between our faiths and not to see ourselves as opposed. Why not take the richness of Protestantism, Islam, Catholicism, and be open to understanding and seeking ways to work together?
One of my teachers was a protégé of [Rabbi Abraham Joshua] Heschel, and he had me read everything Rabbi Heschel wrote. By reading that, I saw the absolute openness to and understanding of the universality of truth. If our Torah is true, we can stand to see truth emanating from other faith communities. Heschel proved this through his respect and friendship with Dr. King. But it was more than just marching in Alabama, they were good friends because they were able to see and work together as a rabbi and a minister. That’s why Heschel told his students, “today, I prayed with my feet.”
You work with Ethiopian Jewish communities. What kind of issues do the Beta Israel face today within Israel, especially in southern Tel Aviv? Do you think their rights are well respected within Israeli society?
From what I’ve heard, I think they have a way to go. Many elements in Israeli society are very welcoming but they are meeting with resistance in some quarters. Based on the time they’ve been there, I certainly believe within 20-30 years I’d not be surprised to see a member of their community as prime minister of Israel.
You have a cousin in the White House-
She doesn’t owe you money, does she?
Then yes, Michelle Obama is my cousin.
During the presidential campaign, you avoided mentioning your family connection publicly for a while.
For some reason, there was a totally unfounded belief in some Jewish communities that candidate Obama was anti-Israel. Even still to this day, there are elements that want to see and believe that. I know unequivocally that this is not the case. So when I got that word, I said ‘yes, that’s my cousin,’ and I really wanted to be part of the Jewish presence in that campaign. The first interview I gave about it was for the Jewish press, for me that was imperative. And I told Michelle and Barack that if I was needed, they just had to call on me.
You’re coming to Toronto soon to talk to a Reconstructionist congregation. What will you be talking about at Toronto’s Darchei Noam?
I’m ashamed to say it will be my first trip to Canada. I’m really looking forward it. I am going to be telling the story of the diversity of the Jewish people, and that truly the word says, “Shema Israel.” It does not say “see, Israel”, it says “hear, Israel.” When I say the Shema, I close my eyes and hear the voice in many tongues. Faces might look different, but the words are all the same.
My goal is to have other Jews in the broader Jewish community be able to see me come into a synagogue on Shabbat with a tallis, tefillin bag and own siddur and not have anyone ask me after we daven whether I’m Jewish. If I saw someone with a tallis, tefillin’, and siddur, who knows when to stand up and sit down, I’d bet they were Jewish.
If you had to give the same d’var torah, week after week, what would it be about? What do you see as the most important issue facing Jews you would want to discuss?
I would have to sow many seeds into that speech. I’d talk about standing up for Israel and speaking against institutions that try to delegitimize the state of Israel, and thus Judaism in my opinion. And speaking to that, I’d have to inculcate the idea of diversity being okay. And lastly as a Jew, the fact that we as Jews are in every part of the world, and we happen to look like the people we live amongst. In India we look like Indians, and the same in Ethiopia, in China, in Poland, in Germany.
Thanks for taking the time to do this interview. Any parting words?
You can visit our website at www.bechollashon.org and see for yourself the very exciting work we are doing. We work with emerging communities in Africa and Central and South America, like the B’nai Anusim whose families were forcibly converted to Catholicism. Please support us, and please help strengthen our Jewish communities around the globe. My goal is to make it known that the Jewish people are a culture of many cultures.
Riva Gold is a former Haaretz intern currently based in Toronto, Canada