“Funnye, you don’t look Jewish”: Rabbi Capers Funnye in Toronto

“You already black. Now you have to go and be a Jew, too? You’re twice cursed.”

That’s what an American Southerner once said to Rabbi Capers Funnye Jr., who converted to Judaism long ago and became a rabbi 25 years ago. In response, says the rabbi, “I actually think I’m twice blessed.”

He was in Toronto recently as guest speaker at Congregation Darchei Noam.

This entry from Darchei Noam’s Jewish Diversity Committee Chair, Andria Spindel:

Andria Spindel and Rabbi Capers Funnye

Rabbi Capers Funnye is a warm and generous man who shared his personal story, his community’s story, the history of Black American Jews and the wider African Jewish history with many members of our congregation over the course of the weekend.

Since discovering Judaism as a young man, a faith which answered his questions about the true nature and singularity of God, Capers has earned several degrees, studied with many scholars and was ordained 25 years ago by the Israelite Orthodox seminary in New York. He has served as spiritual leader of Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation in Chicago since the early 1990s, and travelled widely in Africa to serve its re-emerging and newly emerging Jewish communities.

Delivering a D’var Torah on Shabbat, Rabbi Funnye stressed the important role of women historically and today and indicated that his congregation has embraced equality for all Jews, despite having a “virtual” michitza and using the ArtScroll siddur. His daughters had bat mitzvahs and his synagogue has a female choir and embraces the use of musical instruments at services. Drawing on all of Judaism’s many traditions, Rabbi Funnye explained, is important, allowing there is something to be learned in all streams of Judaism and it does well when mixed with local culture which for his community includes African American traditions. One could hear that mix in the beautiful renditions of favourite Hebrew prayers and songs he sang or in the new songs created at Beth Shalom. Rabbi Funnye’s own powerful enchanting musical voice moved everyone when he launched in to “Baruch Hashem.”

Darchei Noam congregants Yvonne Zilber and daughter Rachelle

At a special reception sponsored by the board in his honour, Rabbi Funnye spoke with passion and love of the Judaism he shares with Jews around the world, and of his family, his congregants. Members of Beth Shalom come from across the city, across the state borders, from Nigeria, Ghana, Uganda, Philippines, and elsewhere and he mentioned, even Ashkenazi families belong, some with adopted African American children.

The history of Black Jews goes back much further than most Canadians realize, with major figures in the late 1800s, but it is thought that many slaves originating in Africa were practicing Israelites, a term more commonly used to describe a people that had already spent generations away from Judea. Stories abound now about the Ethiopian Jews, so it should not surprise us to learn of the Lemba in Zimbabwe, the Sefwi Wiwaso in Ghana, the Igbo in Nigeria, the Tutsis in Rwanda Burundi, and many other tribes that trace themselves back to Israel. Today there are also communities, originally converts, such as the Abayudaya in Uganda and groups in Kenya, Mali, Cameroon. Rabbi Funnye is one of their rabbis and we were treated to something very special here in Toronto.

Darchei Noam’s Jewish Diversity Committee

In honour of Rabbi Capers Funnye’s appearance, the shul provided a donation to Be’ Chol Lashon (In Every Tongue), a San Francisco based organization of which he is an advisor, that works with and for diversity in the Jewish diaspora. Additionally, over $500 was collected in donations and added to the tribute.

Rabbi Funnye was interviewed in the National Post:

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.

He spoke at Congregation Darchei Noam 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.
(Tag: Rabbi, Black Jew, Conversion)