Black and Jewish in America

Rabbi Capers Funnye, Jr., spiritual leader of the B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation in Chicago, represents a minority within a minority.

Born and raised as a member of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Funnye once won a scholarship to the church’s theological seminary. He is now the only black Jew sitting on the Chicago Board of Rabbis, creating his own national statistic.

This despite the fact, Funnye says, that there are about a quarter-million Jews of African descent living in America today.

“The experience of black Jews in the United States is one of the best-kept secrets of the American Jewish community,” he told a packed audience at the San Francisco Library’s Koret Auditorium recently. Funnye appeared as part of a series on racial and ethnic diversity in the Jewish community, sponsored by the year-old Institute for Jewish and Community Research.

“The face of Judaism is not only white and Ashkenazi, but has a far richer diversity than we might imagine,” said Institute president Gary Tobin as he introduced Funnye.

Funnye is a soft-spoken man of great gentleness, fond of quoting the Torah and retelling parables in response to questions, a man more prone to finding common ground than stirring up controversy. He took issue with the headline of an article about him in a San Francisco Jewish paper which suggested he was engaged in “bringing battle” for inclusion in the mainstream American Jewish community.

“I don’t ‘bring battle,’ ” he chided. “The soft word penetrates. Reason and intelligence can lift our inner being.”

Some might call his approach disingenuous. Those who have power rarely give it up willingly. But Funnye, who converted to Judaism years ago along with his wife and children, and who now is looked to as the national spokesman of America’s black Jews, holds firm to his conciliatory line and couches his powerful, forceful message in words of love and acceptance.

BLACK Jews in America trace their heritage back to those Jews who fled from Jerusalem into Africa after the destruction of the First Temple 2,500 years ago, he related. Spreading into Central and Eastern Africa, they intermarried with the local tribes, as did Jews in most parts of the world, taking on new physical features. “Jews around the world tend to look like the communities in which they are found,” he said. “Jews in China look Chinese, Jews in Poland look Eastern European, Jews in Ethiopia look Ethiopian.”

Several African tribes still consider themselves descended from Hebraic stock, including the Ibo of Nigeria and the Tutsis of East Africa. The Africans brought to the New World as slaves in the 18th and 19th centuries were mainly from areas where tribes with Jewish roots predominated, he continued.

Funnye and other black American Jews view that horrific experience as the fulfillment of Deuteronomy 28, he said, quoting, “I shall bring you again into Egypt [slavery] in ships and you shall be sold for bondsmen and bondswomen.”

“But is that good enough to get them into Israel, with the Chief Rabbinate?” he asked rhetorically, with a low chuckle. “The questions we get are, ‘Who are these black Jews? How many are they?’ And the ultimate question, ‘Are they really Jews?’ ”

It’s that last question that causes the sharp break between black American Jews and the mainstream Jewish community, of whatever denomination. Most black Jews in the US have never gone through formal conversion to Judaism; they consider themselves already Jewish simply by virtue of having African ancestors who may have been descended from the original Hebrews.

“We view ourselves not as converts, but as reverts to Judaism,” Funnye explained.

AMERICA’S black Jewish community was founded by Arnold Joshua Ford, born in Virginia in 1887, who went to Ethiopia in the early years of the century and was ordained a rabbi by the Ethiopian Jewish community. Ford passed his smicha on to Wentworth Matthews, one of his disciples.

Ordained by Ford in 1919, Matthew established his first black Jewish congregation, the Commandment Keepers, in Harlem that same year. He studied at Hebrew Union College in New York, and in 1930 founded both the Royal Order of Ethiopian Hebrews, the precursor to America’s black Jews, and the Israelite Rabbinical Academy in New York, which continues to train rabbis to lead black congregations throughout the US and Caribbean. Matthews applied four times to the New York Board of Rabbis, asking to sit on that decision-making body. Four times, his request went unanswered.

In contrast to Matthews, Funnye’s application to sit on the Chicago Board of Rabbis was endorsed unanimously. “Why did I press the issue? It was because all my predecessors were denied, and from the bottom of my being I could not stand to see this door continually shut in the face of our people, simply because I did not go to HUC, JTS or Yeshiva University,” he said, naming the seminaries of the American Reform, Conservative and Orthodox movements.

Undoubtedly, Funnye’s decision to undergo formal conversion played a large part in his acceptance onto Chicago’s rabbinic board. Why did he do it, when most black Jews feel they don’t need to convert?

“Although I felt a distinct connection with the ancient Israelites, the majority of American Jews are Ashkenazi,” he pointed out. “So I didn’t consider going through conversion to be taking anything away from me. To me, personally, I saw it as adding something. It was saying, I am your brother. I remove every semblance of doubt, that any in your quarter might have regarding my sincerity.”

Noting that he was raised a practicing Christian, Funnye likened his entrance into Judaism as that of a homeless man who inherits a mansion. “What is the first thing he does when he enters that mansion?” Funnye asks. “He washes himself clean of all he brought with him.”

For that reason, Funnye said, he has been urging Ben- Ami Carter, the controversial leader of the Dimona Black Hebrews, to undergo Orthodox conversion with his followers in Israel. That’s the only way, he believes, that the Dimona group will ever be accepted as full Jews, and become an integral part of society.

“Ben-Ami wants it, and yet he doesn’t want it,” Funnye noted. “More acceptance in society means less power, less status for himself as a leader.”

FUNNYE’S approach to Judaism is inclusionary, unlike many in the founding generation of black American Jews who reacted to exclusion from the white, Ashkenazi mainstream by declaring that only black Jews were the “real” Jews.

“My position is not that Judaism doesn’t belong in Poland or Russia, but that the table of Judaism is large enough to encompass all people,” he stated. “But some in the Jewish community would rather close that door than allow individuals of African descent to return to this faith of Avraham, Yitzhak and Ya’acov.”

Although Funnye sits on the Chicago Board of Rabbis, has taught in Jewish day schools, spoken on behalf of the board, and works for various Jewish institutions, his congregation and, he said, every other black Jewish congregation in the US, continues to be shunned by the Jewish mainstream.

They receive no services from Jewish organizations, and their members are not buried in Jewish cemeteries, and do not retire to Jewish senior centers. The only exception, Funnye said, are sporadic scholarships to Jewish day schools, which he heartily encourages the children of his congregants to attend.

Recently, Funnye turned to the Jewish Family Services of Chicago to request at-home food deliveries for an elderly couple in his congregation – the wife was on dialysis, and the husband had little money. “The woman there told me, ‘We don’t go that far south,’ so I said, ‘Bring the food to me, and I’ll bring it to them,'” Funnye recalled. “She said, ‘My boss will call you back.’ I’m still waiting for the boss to call.”

Like other black Jewish congregations in the US, Funnye’s has closer contact with other black religious groups, Christian and Moslem, than with white Jewish congregations. He trades pulpits and choirs with local black ministers from time to time, and once, 10 years ago, even co-led a weekly Bible study series with controversial Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan.

Funnye takes sharp issue with Farrakhan’s antisemitism. “Black antisemitism is a shame,” he remarked. “Farrakhan has a problem. He thinks all Jews are white. And he thinks Jews own Hollywood. Well, I’ve been a Jew a long time, and I’m not getting any dividends.”

Jews should confront Farrakhan rather than ignore him, Funnye said. “I believe in challenging foolishness, like, ‘If not for Jews, there would never have been slavery,’ ” he said. “What hogwash that is! But let’s bring it to the table, let’s confront it.”

Funnye’s congregation, which was founded in 1913 as the Ethiopian Hebrew Settlement Workers’ Association, found a new home eight years ago when it moved into a historic synagogue built in 1902 by East European Jews. Four elderly members of that previous congregation still attend Funnye’s services.

One of them begged him to keep the name “Bikur Holim” on the building’s front wall. So the full name of Funnye’s congregation is really B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation Bikur Holim. “Talk about your mergers!” he noted with a huge smile.

THERE are 120 members of B’nai Zaken. Most of the young people marry non-Jewish African-Americans from the surrounding community, but in virtually every case, the new spouse converts to Judaism under Funnye’s tutelage. Funnye uses Lake Michigan as a mikve – the fees to use local mikvaot are prohibitive, he noted.

“More often we win souls rather than lose souls,” he said. “Our children feel a sense of connectedness, because we are so small.”

Funnye described his congregation as “Conservadox,” with perhaps more Orthodox than Conservative leanings. They follow Sephardic traditions for holidays such as Pessah, they have a separate section for women, and women are not called to the Torah. The Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations invited them to become members, but Funnye said his congregants balked. “They’re too liberal for us,” he admitted. “The average black person in America, once you get beyond civil rights, is very conservative in his thinking.”

He’d feel comfortable affiliating with the Conservative movement, but the Conservative leadership wants some of his congregants to go through a mikve conversion, which they won’t do.

So for now, America’s black Jews are on their own, inhabiting a small place between several worlds. Funnye holds out hope for their eventual inclusion in the Jewish mainstream, saying it will happen “Slowly, slowly.”

It just takes patience, and faith, he explained.

“Black Jews are committed to Torah, to God and to Israel, for those are the pillars upon which the world stands.”


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