Obama’s cousin-in-law Rabbi Capers Funnye battles to open the gates of Judaism

Rabbi Capers C. Funnye Jr. is a kippah-wearing black rabbi who leads a multiethnic congregation in Chicago.

But if you happen to run into him, don’t let your curiosity come across the wrong way.

Speaking last week in Los Angeles to an interdenominational group of rabbis who perform conversions, Funnye (pronounced fuh-NAY) described one of many unsettling encounters he’s had in his 30-plus years as a Jew.

While visiting Florida about 10 years ago, Funnye attended morning prayers, donning his prayer shawl and tefillin. At the end of prayers, a man approached him.

“Are you Jewish?”

Funnye, with good-natured sarcasm, responded:

“Jewish? Nooooo. I was just walking by, and I saw this stuff just sitting there outside, and I wanted to see how it worked.”

Funnye, 56, has dedicated his life to chiseling away at the conventional, but increasingly inaccurate, conception of who is a Jew. Whether by reaching out to Chicago’s rabbis to allow him to serve on the board of rabbis or traveling to Nigeria to help the Ibo tribes explore their Jewish reawakening, Funnye is laying the groundwork for a time when the wider Jewish community can without questioning accommodate Jews of all ethnicities.

“I have to have one pair of glasses for all Jews and not see that because Jews are of a different ethnicity, that makes a difference in my approach to them,” Funnye said. “I am working for the day that Jews are simply Jews.”

That message resonated with the 35 rabbis gathered at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino for a daylong seminar of the Sandra Caplan Community Bet Din of Southern California, sponsored jointly with the Board of Rabbis of Southern California.

The Sandra Caplan Bet Din is a cooperative effort by Conservative, Reconstructionist and Reform rabbis to make the conversion process unified, warm and spiritually and psychologically meaningful.

Since it opened in 2002, the bet din has converted 122 people.

Funnye embodies in one person’s journey all that these rabbis are working toward and struggling with: the need to break down false barriers in how “Jew” is defined; the challenge to wholeheartedly integrate those who convert; and the questions of self-definition that inevitably come up for born Jews, who are so often less knowledgeable and spiritually committed than apparent “foreigners” who choose to be Jewish.

“How we relate to the Jew-by-choice, the unchurched, the seekers, tells me more about myself than anything else,” said Rabbi Harold Schulweis, rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom, who followed Funnye’s keynote with a response. “When I look into the eyes of a Jew-by-choice, I see myself reflected.”

In the past several decades, the topic of conversion has pitted liberal rabbis against their Orthodox counterparts, who don’t recognize non-Orthodox conversions as legitimate. The issue is especially heated in Israel, where the Orthodox rabbinate holds legal status in civil affairs, such as marriage, divorce and burial.

But the rabbis at the seminar also expressed frustration at their own liberal members who refer to peers as “converts,” even years after they’ve become Jewish.

Funnye himself converted three times. The first two times were with communities of black Jews — also called Israelites or Black Hebrews.

Funnye’s spiritual search began when his African Methodist Episcopalian minister advised him to think about going into the service of God. Christian tenets — and especially the demands on its leaders — didn’t sit well with him. He explored Islam and evangelical Christianity while a student at Howard University, then a few years later, while working at Arthur Anderson consulting, he ran into a group of African Americans who wore kippahs. He began studying with them and attending their Chicago synagogue and converted to Judaism with that congregation in 1972, immersing in a pool.

It was a few years later that he attended a synagogue in Harlem, where he saw a fuller expression of Judaism and ritual, and the leader there encouraged him to become a religious leader for black Jews. In 1979 he re-immersed in a lake, since conversion requires immersion in a natural body of water or a mikvah, ritual bath. In 1985, after studying for four years, he was ordained by the New York-based Israelite Board of Rabbis. During that time, he also received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the Spertus Institute for Jewish Studies in Chicago.

And it was that year that he also decided he wanted a full, halachic conversion, one that would meet most mainstream Jewish legal standards. He put together a bet din of two Orthodox rabbis and two Conservative rabbis, including his mentor, Rabbi Morris Fishman. Funnye, his wife, Mary, and their four children — who were already in Conservative day school at the time — immersed in a mikvah.

Throughout his journey in the Jewish community, Funnye has recognized the need to make his community part of the fabric of the larger Jewish community.

Funnye is the rabbi of Temple Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation, which serves a multiethnic population. Founded in 1918 and now with 220 members, the synagogue moved from Chicago’s South Side to Marquette Park six years ago. Marquette Park is infamous as a center of activity for the American Nazi Party and site of a Martin Luther King Jr. march that ended after just a few blocks because bricks and bottles were being thrown.

Funnye has been at Beth Shalom since 1984, when he started as assistant rabbi. In 1991, he succeeded Rabbi Abihu Ben Reuben, who had led the congregation from 1947. While respecting Reuben’s traditions and teachings, Funnye sought to give Judaism fuller expression in the services and rituals and to make the conversion process more oriented toward halachah, Jewish law.

At Funnye’s congregation, Shabbat is an all-day event. Congregants come Friday night and then return Saturday for morning prayers, mostly in Hebrew, a reading of the entire Torah portion and an interactive sermon. A gospel-style choir brings congregants to their feet, and after a Kiddush lunch, about 70 percent of attendees stay for afternoon services and informal Torah study, followed by Havdalah.

Most of his congregants keep kosher, avoiding shellfish and pork, and buying kosher meat. Most of his members can’t afford the high tuition of the day school but attend the congregation’s Hebrew school.

Two of Funnye’s sisters have also converted to Judaism, and his late mother regularly made sure her minister invited her son-the-rabbi to speak at church. Even his in-laws, religious evangelicals, are open to what they see as a way to draw closer to God. His two married children have both married Jews-by-choice. He and his wife have one granddaughter and six grandsons.

“I’ve told my children, ‘If you don’t marry someone who is Jewish, it is my prayer that they become Jewish. It doesn’t matter to me what they look like. What matters to me is that they are Jewish, and their children are going to be Jewish, and that you instill in them and imbue in them the principals and values I have tried to instill and imbue in you,'” Funnye said, adding, “baruch Hashem (thank God) they’ve been listening to their old man.”

He has many congregants who, like his family, have three generations or more at Beth Shalom. He also sees many spiritual seekers, among them white Jews. He is in the process of converting an extended Mexican family of anusim, Spanish Jews forced to convert to Christianity 500 years ago. The family was attracted to the synagogue because the worship space hidden in their family’s Mexico City basement was also called Beth Shalom.

He teaches many seeking conversion and brings them before a bet din of Conservative rabbis — one of the changes he made in an effort to up the quality of Jewish observance in his congregation. Potential converts must study for at least a year and attend services regularly.

“I often like to tell new people that when you start studying Judaism, every time you get a new book, every time you learn something new, it should feel like dipping a spoon into a bucket of fresh well water. If you ever had well water, it stimulates the whole being — this is what Judaism does when we learn. It stimulates the being,” Funnye said. “It’s never stopped doing that for me. The more I learn, the richer it tastes; the better it tastes.”

Funnye is vice president of the International Israelite Board of Rabbis, a group of 20 rabbis who serve five congregations in New York, one in Philadelphia, one in Chicago and one in Barbados.

Many black Jews believe that the original Israelites were African — they came out of Egypt in North Africa — and they consider themselves not converts, but reverts, going back to their true origins.

There is tremendous diversity among groups calling themselves Black Hebrew, Israelites or Black Jews. While some black Jewish congregations hew to Jewish theology and practice, others retain a messianic angle, including Jesus in their theology. Some have Jewish aspects but are mingled with many other traditions.

Funnye’s adoption of halachic standards for his congregation stems in part from his desire to connect his flock with the mainstream Jewish community, something he has worked on for years.

After getting his degrees at Spertus, he worked as a business manager there until 1991. He not only got to meet Jewish luminaries, such as Elie Wiesel, but built relationships with many rabbis and professors.

He has touched many parts of the African American and Chicago Jewish communities: He has taught at congregational schools, he lectures widely, has consulted with the Spertus Museum of Judaica and the Du Sable Museum of African American History and has served on the boards of Chicago’s Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, Akiba Schechter Jewish Day School and the Chicago Board of Rabbis.

Funnye’s near-unanimous acceptance onto the board in 1997 held historical significance. His predecessors in New York, who had attempted to join their board of rabbis in the 1940s and ’50s, did not even get dignified with a rejection — they were simply ignored.

He also reaches out to the larger African American community through coalitions with neighborhood churches and has hosted joint programs with Muslim groups, as well.

Now, Funnye is extending that acceptance across the Atlantic to Africa.

Funnye is the associate director and Chicago regional director of BeChol Lashon, Hebrew for “in every language,” an initiative of the San Francisco-based Institute for Jewish and Community Research (IJCR), where he is a senior researcher. The program reaches out to Jews of color from all over the world, from the anusim communities of Latin America to African tribes rediscovering Jewish roots, like the Abuyudaya of Uganda. Funnye is coordinator for IJCR’s Pan-African Jewish Alliance, which seeks to connect African American Jews with Jews in Africa. Funnye has been to Africa six times and works primarily with the Ibo of Nigeria.

Ongoing research by the Pan-African Jewish Alliance has found that there may be as many as 30,000 Nigerians reclaiming Jewish roots. An Ibo oral tradition holds that their ancestors were Hebrews who migrated from Israel to Africa 1,500 years ago. While many have no trace of Jewish heritage, others have held on to traditions. The Ibo circumcise their boys on the eighth day and gather their elders by sounding teruah and shevarim notes on the ram’s horn. Their priests wear a white garment with blue stripes, fringed all around. As the Ibo begin to explore their Jewish roots and try to connect to the worldwide Jewish community, Funnye’s congregation is raising funds to build a sister synagogue in Nigeria, and he is working to get the Ibo the educational materials and leadership they need.

“Africa is ripe with hundreds, even thousands of people who claim a link to Judaism, and they’re asking the question, ‘Where is the gate that leads to Jewish peoplehood?'”

Funnye wants the answer to that question to resonate a little more loudly and clearly.

He understands that most American Jews still aren’t used to Jews of color, but he is convinced that as more people around the world discover and explore either their ancient Jewish roots or their dormant Jewish spirit, the wider Jewish community will begin to take seriously the words of Isaiah: “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations.”

“I believe those biblical prophecies are going to have more people reaching out and searching and going on spiritual journeys, and, ultimately, Judaism is going to be a place they want to examine and investigate. I only hope and pray that the gates to our synagogues are open and welcoming.”

At the seminar in Encino last week, Valley Beth Shalom’s Schulweis cautioned that to move forward, rabbis must acknowledge the sometimes dominant strain in Jewish tradition that holds a deep suspicion of conversion.

But, he said, Jewish texts and history have an equally strong tradition of welcoming the proselyte, and it is that tradition the seminar explored and pushed forward.

The rabbis shared best practices, studied relevant texts and explored innovative ways of making all aspects of conversion deeply spiritual and uplifting, not just for the people converting but for everyone around them.

The Sandra Caplan Bet Din’s meshing of divergent streams of Judaism — a collaboration that took several years to negotiate — augers well for the more expansive bridges Funnye and the Los Angeles rabbis are trying to build.

“The remarkable thing about Los Angeles is we have colleagues who like each other, respect each other and are willing to talk to each other,” said Rabbi Stewart Vogel, president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, an interdenominational umbrella group. “When you can engage in dialogue, anything can happen. We can get past stereotypes and prejudices, and we can work together to create the Jewish community we want.”