The Obama family rabbi
CHICAGO – When Rabbi Capers Funnye Jr. first met Barack Obama, he judged him to be a little shy. To be fair, Obama wasn’t yet an international celebrity or even running for president. He was just Funnye’s cousin Michelle’s husband, being dragged to family events filled with her relatives, including Funnye, her grandfather’s nephew.
Funnye describes Obama at those encounters as curious about his Judaism, since he knew many white Jews but wasn’t familiar with the African-American Jewish community.
“He said he wanted to visit,” Funnye relates from his office at Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation in Chicago’s South Side. Before Obama had a chance, though, he got caught up in campaigning.
Had Obama come to Beth Shalom, he would have found himself in the nation’s second-oldest predominantly African-American synagogue, one with 220 members and a thriving religious and communal life.
He would have found a Shabbat service that mixes traditional Ashkenazi and Sephardi elements, with lengthy Hebrew davening from a Sephardi prayer book preceding a Torah service and then Kiddush. And he would have seen a range of observance – some Orthodox, like adherence to kosher laws, and some outside of what’s permissible at a Reform congregation, such as collecting money from members during the service.
But he also would have found a Shabbat experience all its own, with distinctively black cultural accents – after reading from the Torah and returning it to the ark, a choir sings a James Weldon Johnson poem, followed by men in prayer shawls thumping rhythms on African drums and a sermon delivered by Funnye with the soulful cadence and full-body animation of a black preacher.
Though Funnye was raised in the black church, he clearly takes umbrage at such comparisons – in part because others have mistaken such similarities for a shared theology – and stresses that his synagogue practices rabbinic Judaism.
To those who believe such differences in practice raise question marks about the sincerity or authenticity of the congregation’s Jewishness, Funnye counters that Judaism has taken on many forms and customs in the various places in which it has thrived.
“Judaism as it is has evolved,” he declares in his rich, deep voice, noting that some haredim wear a uniform adopted from the gentiles they once lived among in Eastern Europe. “If you’re going to tell me that the beaver hat and knickers and long black coats are inherent to Judaism, I beg to differ. It’s Jews who took the dress of the aristocrats. I don’t believe that Abraham wore a beaver hat.”
And he quotes Psalm 150 from memory to make the point that musical instruments were once a part of religious ceremonies at the ancient Temple in Jerusalem (“…praise Him with drums and dancing…”). During services, he tells the swaying congregants: “We drum to invigorate the eternal inside us.”
“Many of those rules were put in place by rabbinical courts so services wouldn’t sound like Christians’,” he says of the halachic restrictions. “Let’s tell the truth.”
IT WAS actually Funnye’s early experiences with Christianity that got him started on the journey that would lead him to Judaism. The minister at his church in South Carolina, where his family lived during his high school years, first identified Funnye as having the makings of a religious leader – though the teenager didn’t like the idea of being a preacher. He laughs heartily as he admits to having thought that such a career path could mean “one might not be able to date all the girls one might want to date.” The suggestion also made him more aware of his doubts about Christian theology, which he eventually rejected. Having done so, Funnye began to explore various other faiths, including Islam, until he came across black Jews who introduced him to their faith. The more he read, the more he felt that it suited him, so he “immersed” himself in study.
“Judaism allowed me to question, to intellectualize and get bound up in the spirit,” says Funnye, surrounded by volumes of the Talmud and other holy texts.
Funnye, now 56, started studying Judaism in the 1970s before meeting a leader with the black Jewish movement who saw what his former minister had: that he had the potential to be a spiritual leader. Funnye converted and then underwent intensive learning and training at his community’s own rabbinical school, the New York-based Israelite Academy, before being ordained in 1985. He has been a fixture at Beth Shalom ever since.
Even retreating to his office behind a closed door doesn’t prevent a steady stream of knocks and questions from congregants following Shabbat services, as they ask him about everything from the meaning of certain prayers to the arrangements for community events.
Funnye’s religious choice at first raised some eyebrows in his family, he says, especially his mother’s. (He says that while he wasn’t extremely close to Michelle, having spent so many years outside of Chicago, she’s always had a positive attitude.) In the end, two of his four sisters also converted. A brother almost followed suit but balked at the dietary laws, telling him, “You know I love these books and this is really me, but you told me I can’t eat ham.”
In addition to the appeal of Judaism’s rituals and spiritual sensibility, Funnye was also drawn in by the affinity he feels with Ethiopian Jews. In fact, Funnye’s movement believes the first Jews were of African descent. The congregation’s name reflects that identification, though Ethiopian Jews rarely join.
Funnye sees Ethiopian Jews and other communities that claim descent from the lost tribes of Israel and are returning to Judaism as essential to the future of Israel as a Jewish state, arguing that these groups will help Israel maintain its Jewish majority.
Some members of these groups, including South American converts who believe their ancestors were forced to abandon Judaism during the Inquisition, themselves make up Beth Shalom’s diverse congregants, who also include some white Jewish parents who have adopted black children and several born African American Jews (some from the families who started the synagogue in 1915), though most are converts.
At the same time, Funnye continues to feel connected to Chicago’s black community, and tries to serve as a bridge between it and the Jewish community. The two haven’t always had the easiest of relationships. He has taken African Americans to task for anti-Semitic attitudes, including confronting Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan after he called Judaism a “gutter religion.” (He says he told him, “If Judaism is in the gutter and it’s Islam’s mother, where is the daughter?”)
Funnye also works to improve attitudes among Jews, sometimes on his own behalf. He is the first African American member of the Chicago Board of Rabbis, as historically black congregations have often been less than welcome into mainstream Jewish communal life. Many in the Orthodox community in particular do not recognize these African American congregants as Jews, though Funnye says he now speaks regularly at Modern Orthodox synagogues and that attitudes are changing.
There are 25 other living African American rabbis who have been ordained in the movement, with most of the estimated 150,000 black Jews nationwide living in the area, here in Chicago, or in Philadelphia, with a new congregation starting in Washington this fall.
Funnye believes Obama can also be helpful in repairing relations between the black and Jewish communities, as the candidate has pledged he would do during the campaign, and his cousin-in-law is happy to aid in that effort himself if called upon.
He’s also eager to help the campaign, having made financial contributions and talking up the Democratic presidential nominee whenever possible.
Funnye is fervently hoping for an Obama victory next Tuesday, though he admits that getting to visit the White House as part of the extended Obama family wouldn’t be quite the thrill he got visiting this past year at George W. Bush’s invitation. He was part of a group of rabbis and Jewish leaders who attended the White House Hanukka reception and got to meet and be photographed with the president.
“I would be excited, but with Barack and Michelle there would be too many other family members in the way,” he says with a smile.
But Funnye doesn’t want to be mistaken – he’d still be happy to accept the offer. And he hopes Obama will return the favor, he intimates. “I wonder if Barack remembers that he owes us a visit.”