Capers Funnye’s double indemnity as a black rabbi

Rabbi Capers Funnye used to endure this joke: “Funnye, you don’t look Jewish.” Rabbi Funnye, born in South Carolina in 1952, is an African-American who converted to Judaism as a young man when he began having serious doubts about the Protestant Christian faith of his birth. He now runs one of the oldest black synagogues in the United States, Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken in Chicago, which is 95 years old. He is also a cousin of Michelle Obama and knew Barack Obama when the future president was still an Illinois state senator. On Sunday evening, he will speak at a synagogue in Toronto about the African American Jewish experience. “We have African Americans who are Protestant, Catholic and Muslim — so why not have African Americans who are part and parcel of the Jewish people?” Religion reporter Charles Lewis spoke to Rabbi Funnye this week.

Q. Jews and blacks have been two of the most persecuted peoples in history. Has this created issues for you?

A. It’s double indemnity. I was working in West Virginia years ago and this guy said to me in a deep Southern accent, “My Gawd! Capers. You already black. Wasn’t that bad enough? Now you have to go and be a Jew, too? You’re twice cursed.” I actually think I’m twice blessed.

Q. Was Jesus a good Rabbi?

A. (He laughs outrageously at this.) He must have been — look at all the folks he has! But Jesus has no religious meaning for me anymore. I follow the religion of Jesus not the religion about Jesus.

Q. What made you turn to Judaism?

A. When I was in high school a pastor asked me if I’d want to become a Christian minister. That made me reflect more on my Christian faith and confront questions that always bothered me. I couldn’t understand how if Jesus was God, and then he was dead for three days after the crucifixion, who was in charge? I also couldn’t understand the idea of the Trinity — Father, Son and Holy Ghost. That idea was developed 325 years after Jesus so I doubted the Trinity was true.

Q. But why Judaism?

A. Judaism does not put limits on God and Christians do. To me, God is limitless. When I began to move away from Christianity I started to study Judaism with rabbis. By becoming a Jew, I felt I was reverting to the roots of it all.

Q. Judaism is considered a matrilineal religion. Are you concerned about other Jews who won’t accept you because you’re a convert?

A. Unfortunately there are elements in the Jewish community who will only see an individual with a Jewish mother as a real Jew — even if that person has never been into a synagogue, who could care less about Judaism as a spiritual faith community. But I don’t let that slow me down or get in the way.

Q. What is your congregation like?

A. It’s always been predominantly black but over the past 15 years we’ve had more Ashkenazi Jews [Jews of European descent], mixed race Jews and Spanish Jews whose families were forced to convert during the Inquisition and are now making their way back to the Jewish fold. We also have white Jews who have adopted African American children who want to raise their children as Jewish but want them to see black faces when they come to schul.

Q. How close were you to Michelle? Have you been to the White House?

A. The First Lady is 12 years my junior but she and my youngest sister were born eights days apart in 1964 and they were very close. I’ve been to the White House for a Hanukkah party but I was one of about 400 Jewish leaders who were invited. I think President Obama is a fine, young man.

Q. American Muslim leader Louis Farrakhan once allegedly said that Judaism is a “gutter religion.” Has he hurt black-Jewish relations?

A. (Laughing really loud.) He was not good, not good at all! His comment upset me terribly so I had a meeting with him in his home. He said he was misquoted and all that good stuff. But I said to him: Judaism is the mother of Islam, and Islam is the daughter of Judaism. So if the mother is in the gutter, how far behind can the daughter be? I don’t know if I got through to him but I hope I did.