Answering the Call: Rabbi Capers and Rabbinit Miriam Funnye Honored for 25 Years of Leadership

JCUA Executive Director Jane Ramsey’s remarks at event honoring Rabbi Capers and Rabbinit Miriam Funnye

It is a great pleasure and an honor to stand in front of you today, and join in honoring Rabbi Capers and Rabbinit Miriam Funnye.

We look to our leaders to establish a path and to show us how to follow it. We look to our religious leaders to draw on a divine inspiration, and pass that inspiration along to us.

We want leaders who answer a call and who have the ability to define and re-define, showing us new ways of looking at the world.

Front Row (from right to left): Jane Ramsey, Cohen Abdi Ben Levi, Rabbi Nasi, Rabbi Bowen, Diane Tobin, Rabbi Funnye, Rabbinit Funnye, Rabbi Hodges. Back Row (from right to left): Rabbi Benyamin, Rabbi Joshua Salter, Rabbi Baruch, Elder Bowen, Rabbi Goldberg, Rabbi Avraham

About leadership, Harry S. Truman once said:

“Men make history and not the other way around. In periods where there is no leadership, society stands still. Progress occurs when courageous, skillful leaders seize the opportunity to change things for the better.”

President Truman could have been talking about Rabbi Capers Funnye!

I will preface my consideration of Rabbi Capers and Miriam Funnye’s leadership, by first considering the nature of leadership with two Jewish leaders who came before.

John F. Kennedy said “leadership and learning are indispensible to each other.”

So, since we’re in a synagogue, where learning happens all the time, let’s study a bit of Torah for a moment.

For the past several weeks, the Torah portions that we have been reading on Shabbat have had Abraham as their central character.

The Torah says that God speaks to Abraham and commands:

“Go from your land, from your birthplace and from your father’s house, to the land which I will show you.”

There, God says, he will be made into a great nation. Abraham and his wife Sarah, accompanied by his nephew Lot, journey to the land of Canaan, where Abraham continues to spread the message of a one god.

The Torah doesn’t give us a lot of explanation as to why or how Abraham heard God’s call. For more perspective we can turn to the Midrash – a story that fills in details that might be missing from the Torah itself.

A story in the Midrash tells us that Abraham’s father was a professional idol-maker. Abraham rebelled against him, destroying all of the idols on the shelves of his father’s shop.

Abraham defied his father. He defined a new path for himself and defined a revolutionary new religion – monotheism, the belief in one god.

Abraham serves as a father figure to three great religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Now, a more recent example of leadership took place just a few blocks from here—and not so long ago.

It was 1966 and the civil rights battles in this country – and of course, right here in Chicago – were in full force. The nation and its citizens were going through pains of change right in front of us.

The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. decided to make Chicago the center of the northern push for the Civil Rights Movement and much of his work for open housing. As he visited various churches in the city, one of the men who accompanied him, who was the introductory speaker at several of his appearances, was a young rabbi named Robert Marx.

At the request of the Chicago Conference on Religion and Race, and the Chicago Commission on Human Relations, Rabbi Marx went to Gage Park where Dr. King was leading a march, to ensure a peaceful event.

On the last Sunday in July of 1966, Marx joined other clergymen who together observed the streets of Marquette Park, in an effort to disperse the people who were threatening the marchers.

Rabbi Marx said about that day:

“What I saw in Gage Park seared my soul in a way that my participation in no other civil rights event had done. I was afraid and I am afraid now.”

He continued,

“I saw how the concentration camp could have occurred, and how men’s hatred could lead them to kill. I saw Catholic priests reviled and nuns spat upon.”

Rabbi Marx went on to say of his experience observing the march:

“I was on the wrong side of the street. I should have been with the marchers.”

And, as Rabbi Marx wrote in this letter, he made a decision:

“This afternoon I will join Dr. King and others who will be going back into the Gage Park area. This time I will be on the right side of the street.”

Like Abraham before him, Rabbi Marx was taking steps – literally taking steps in the street – to create a new definition of how the Jewish community and all religious leaders should respond to the calls for open housing in Chicago.

Considering his leadership position in the Reform Movement, this was a risky move for him, but a necessary one. For Rabbi Robert Marx, Judaism is defined very simply as social justice.

Abraham and Robert Marx both answered a call.

Which brings us to today with our extraordinary honorees and leaders: Rabbi Capers and Miriam Funnye.

I’ve been so fortunate to count Rabbi Capers and Miriam Funnye as colleagues and dear friends for over two decades.

From the moment Rabbi Funnye joined the staff of the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, I sensed the dedication of a man who is answering a call. Upon meeting Miriam I understood that theirs is a partnership in a commitment and love of Judaism, community and family.

In his own words, upon their return from a visit with the Pan-African Jewish community in Nigeria, Rabbi Funnye said “Miriam has been my inspiration for 35 years and she remains the better half of my brain and my being.”

JCUA was fortunate, too, benefitting from Rabbi Funnye’s depth of commitment to its’ mission, bringing his love and strong commitment to fostering communities and to bringing the change needed to create justice in our city and world. Rabbi Funnye has helped build JCUA and the communities in which it works.

While managing JCUA’s office in the 1980s, Rabbi Funnye helped build the organization and lay its internal foundations. He orchestrated JCUA’s move to its’ historic new home with Spertus College and Museum of Judaica.

He mentored and taught our staff, lay leaders and youth, guiding them, bringing a prophetic Jewish commitment to tackling community issues such as a critical lack of affordable housing, racism, voter disenfranchisement, and police misconduct.

As well, Rabbi Funnye built paths of understanding, relationships and networks between our diverse Jewish communities, creating at JCUA, Shalem, a ground-breaking initiative that connected members of Chicago’s black and white Jewish communities, fostering communications, growing understanding and laying the groundwork to jointly confront racism.

I will always remember the day that Rabbi Funnye shared with me that he planned to leave our staff so he could devote full time to his dream, his rabbinate and the building of the synagogue and its’ community. While serving part-time with his congregation, he had provided JCUA remarkable, sensitive, insightful leadership.

He now sought to focus these qualities full-time upon his beloved community. Rabbi Funnye’s dedication to JCUA’s prophetic mission for justice continued—as it does today—as he then began his service as a member and officer of our board of directors.

JCUA is not the only beneficiary of Rabbi Funnye’s broad community service.

One of his many roles is that of associate director of Be’chol Lashon, a Hebrew phrase which means “in every tongue.”

I’m sure all of you know about the rabbi’s work with Be’chol Lashon, but let’s take a moment to look more closely because their mission is very much like Rabbi Funnye’s personal approach.

Be’chol Lashon seeks “to overcome the significant organizational, cultural and ideological barriers to growth in the Jewish community. A more expansive Judaism is particularly engaging for younger and unaffiliated Jews who want Judaism to reflect the global community in which they live.”

And here’s their mission statement:

“Be’chol Lashon grows and strengthens the Jewish people through ethnic, cultural, and racial inclusiveness. We advocate for the diversity that has characterized the Jewish people throughout history, and through contemporary forces including intermarriage, conversion and adoption. We foster an expanding Jewish community that embraces its differences.”

In fact, Rabbi Funnye’s leadership extends beyond our local community, beyond our national communities, to the international arena, reaching out to and serving Jewish communities in all corners of the world, connecting us to one another and to other peoples across faith, across nations, across ethnicities and race.

Closer to home, in the neighborhood, Rabbi Funnye reaches out across faith, working closely with the Muslim community, particularly through his special relationship with Rami Nashashibi and the extraordinary Inner-City Muslim Action Network and with grassroots organizations, especially with Jeff Bartow and the very effective Southwest Community Organizing Project.

Rabbi Funnye heard the call to become a rabbi and he answered the call to become the leader of a congregation.

In doing this, he was following the command that God gave to Abraham:

“Go from your land, from your birthplace and from your father’s house, to the land which I will show you.”

That’s a bold move. It’s commitment. And Miriam has brought her love and partnership to serving, to guiding the family, the congregation and the community.

And like Abraham, they’re leading people to create a new definition.

These days, people utilizing access to traditional and social media, are trying to re-frame the issues all too often with a cynical definition, one that leads to a divided and intolerant America.

As Jews, as people who work to set an example of justice, Rabbi and Miriam Funnye light the way, providing beacons of justice and hope, for us as people of faith, to recognize intolerance and to take action whenever and wherever we see it.

We draw our inspiration from trend-setting leaders like Abraham, Dr. King, Rabbi Marx, and, today, here and now, at Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken, with Rabbi Capers and Miriam Funnye. We follow our leaders along new paths that define their visions that will lead us to achieving a just and loving world.

Today, we are grateful for the work of Rabbi Capers and Miriam Funnye, for their remarkable dedication to this congregation, to Judaism, to our community, and to our world, for 25 years.

For their silver anniversary, for their leadership and for being willing to “answer the call,” join me in saying todah rabah, or thank you very much, and mazel tov – congratulations!

(Tags: Rabbi Capers Funnye)


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