A black Chicago rabbi leads a congregation of a segregationist sect. But he’s a solid member of both camps.
THE LITTLE YELLOW-BRICK synagogue with the stubby green turrets squats incongruously on a haggard street in Chicago’s mean South Side. Gang-style graffiti spatter the peeling brown paint on the synagogue’s doors and the whitewashed walls of the clapboard houses on the rest of the block. Many are abandonded, their doors boarded over with plywood. The streets are nearly deserted on a Sunday morning, except for a little girl chattering in Spanish with her parents on the way home from church, and a posse of young men lounging on a parked car, drinking beer from brown-bagged bottles to the accompaniment of booming rap music. Almost all the Ashkenazi Jews who once saturated the area, and who founded the synagogue in 1902, have long since moved on to more prosperous precincts, making way for mainly black and Hispanic newcomers.
Nonetheless, today the synagogue is thriving. The building was recently acquired by Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation, a flock of 30-odd black families led by one Rabbi Capers Funnye. The few remaining white worshipers now join the newcomers for services and holidays, there are regular afternoon Hebrew classes and everyone apparently gets along fine. There’s just one catch: Most of Funnye’s flock aren’t real Jews, at least by mainstream definition. Then again, according to their own definition, many of Beth Shalom’s members don’t believe that any non-black person is a real Jew.
Most of the congregation members are Hebrew Israelites, a tiny but enduring religious movement that holds that African blacks are the true descendants of the ancient Israelites and white Jews at best late-coming converts, if not outright frauds. Though the movement has been around for at least a century, Hebrew Israelites have always held themselves scornfully apart from mainstream Jews, while few mainstream Jews even knew they existed. But Funnye may be the first Jewish spiritual leader with a foot solidly in both camps, acting as an unprecedented bridge between the communities.
A powerfully built man with a booming voice, Funnye, 44, was proselytized into the Hebrew Israelite movement in Chicago in 1970, and later went to New York to study for ordination from the movement’s Israelite Board of Rabbis. But on his return to Chicago, thirsty for more knowledge, he stepped outside the movement’s bounds. He got a master’s degree from the respected Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies, and, to settle any doubts, underwent a formal Conservative conversion. He still calls himself a Hebrew Israelite, but is happy to serve on the boards of directors of the local American Jewish Congress chapter and the Chicago Federation’s Jewish Council on Urban Affairs.
He encourages his congregants to follow his spiritual example – although he doesn’t call it converting. “Blacks who are Jews aren’t converts, but reverts,” he says affably. “They are reverting to their own past.” To help them find the way, Funnye has enlisted a white, Conservative rabbi, Morris Fishman, to oversee the circumcisions and other requisite halakhic rituals. “Most of them are not authentic Jews, but they have a genuine interest,” says Fishman, who estimates he has helped dozens of Beth Shalom members “revert” in the last few years.
Much of this is somewhat bewildering for Funnye’s congregants. “It was strange at first for us when we we moved in here, because the original group of Caucasian Jews were still here,” says Beth Shalom member Devorah ben Yosef, sitting in a well-worn wooden pew inside the synagogue. “We had never worshiped with Jews of non-African descent before.” The walls behind her are studded with dusty plaques commemorating long-gone supporters with names like Kaplowitz and Gross; at the front of the room, a line of conga drums stands next to the bimah. She wears a similar pastiche of influences: Her dark, ovular face is framed by long dreadlocks and African-style wooden earrings, while a gold Star of David hangs from her neck.
Not that Funnye’s style has changed her views from those she learned from the Hebrew Israelites who brought her to the faith while she was living in New York in the 1980s. “We are the real descendants of the people in the Bible,” she says firmly.
“I consider Caucasian Jews converts to Judaism, not blood descendants. It’s hard for them to hear that. But we’re not looking for acceptance from them, only acceptance of the truth.”
NOT ALL AFRICAN-AMERICANS are of Jewish descent, she says; the ancient black Israelites just got caught up in the slave trade along with the rest.
Funnye accepts that notion, but also allows for the more conventional explanation. The Jews expelled from Palestine, he believes, scattered into both Europe and Africa. Why not? There were Jews in Ethiopia, he points out, and tribes like the Balemba of South Africa and the Sefwi Wiawso of Ghana that practice remarkably Jewish-looking customs. “I’m not so popular with some in the Hebrew Israelite community because I don’t get into that whole line about racial purity,” he says. “When blacks say they are more authentic Jews than whites, I feel they are responding to the racism they have felt from whites through the years. But it’s not about race, it’s about righteousness, about the covenant between the people of Israel and God.”
Rabbi Funnye also trades on his unique position to act as a bridge between mainstream Jews and another group of skeptical blacks: Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam. The rabbi and the minister have dined together several times since the 1980s when Funnye, troubled by Farrakhan’s Jew-bashing rhetoric, asked for a meeting. “I told him if he thought all Jews were white, he was wrong,” says Funnye.
They last met a few months ago. Funnye says he took issue with Farrakhan’s claim that Jews played a major role in the slave trade, and on his vicious attacks on Jewish groups like the ADL. Farrakhan, says Funnye, is always at least an attentive listener. “I don’t know if I’m reaching him, but here and there I hear little things I’ve said to him come up in his speeches.”
The Hebrew Israelite movement grew out of the teachings of a few African-American preachers and self-described prophets in New York, Philadelphia, Kansas and elsewhere around the turn of the century. Their basic common denominator was the idea that the people of the Bible were black, Africans, so at least some blacks must be the real descendants of the original Jews.
Robert Weisbord, a history professor at the University of Rhode Island specializing in Jewish and black history, compares them to the Black Muslim movement that grew up around the same time. “Many blacks wanted to find a faith that was not associated with white people and slavery,” he explains.
Today, there are several Hebrew Israelite sub-sects in America and elsewhere, with total membership estimated in the thousands. The Black Hebrews of Dimonah, Israel, are one offshoot. Weisbord reports encountering Hebrew Israelites as far afield as Barbados. Harlem hosts one of the most extreme factions, the Israeli Church of Universal Practical Knowledge. Every Saturday in Times Square, members decked out in sequinned robes and turbans spend hours hurling abuse over loudspeakers at whites – and white “so-called Jews.” The real descendants of the 12 tribes of -Israel, their literature explains, are the dark-skinned people of the Western Hemisphere: the Levi tribe begat the Haitians, Ephraim the Puerto Ricans, Manasseh the Cubans, and so on.
Understandably, Funnye has little time for the movement’s outer reaches. His version of the central Hebrew Israelite tenet – that there were Jews among the Africans – is a nonexclusive and entirely plausible one. “The Jews that wound up in Poland look like Poles, the Jews in Ethiopia look like Ethiopians.
So why couldn’t Jews that wound up in other parts of Africa look like Africans?” asks Funnye. “Some scholars say there’s no evidence, but as someone said, Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.’ Abraham had no evidence, but he had faith.”