First lady’s cousin likes being first rabbi

WASHINGTON — The man at the microphone has the build of a running back and the cadence of a man of the cloth. To a small outdoor gathering, he is quoting from the 128th Psalm:

“What your hands provide you will enjoy; you will be happy and prosper:

“Like a fruitful vine your wife within your home,

“Like olive plants your children around your table.”

It is a rally on Capitol Hill in support of granting a path to eventual citizenship to America’s 12-million unhappy, unprosperous, undocumented — or, if you prefer, unlawful — residents.

“It is unconscionable that today in America, persons who only want to provide for their families are torn from their families,” the speaker says forcefully from a makeshift pulpit.

He informs us that the U.S. government currently holds in custody more than 300,000 of these aliens, at an annual cost of more than a billion dollars.

The activist beseeches the Obama administration to completely review and rewrite America’s immigration laws. To a bystander, this invocation of the new president’s name rings both ironic and delicious, because the man at the microphone is a cousin of the first lady of the United States, Michelle Obama herself.

And an African-American.

And a rabbi.

His name is Capers Funnye, which he pronounces Fun-NAY.

A convert from Methodism as a young adult, currently the spiritual leader of the 90-year-old Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation of 200 multi-hued Jews in Chicago, he is a man of impeccable theological pedigree and passionate devotion to the cause of pan-ethnic Jewish inclusion.

There are an estimated 150,000 black Jews in the U.S. But Capers Funnye was the only African-American rabbi in the presidential box at Barack Obama’s inauguration.

“The parade was the clincher for me,” he tells me, full of big-eyed energy and zeal, a blue yarmulke on his head. “All of the fanfare, the family being in the reviewing stand, that was when I said, ‘This is real. This is real.'”

“And when you pass the White House now?” I wonder.

“It’s ‘Wow,'” he replies. “Just ‘Wow.'”

Rabbi Funnye’s mother was Michelle Robinson Obama’s grandfather’s sister. He is a decade older than the first lady, so they weren’t all that close growing up, but he has known the president since long before his ballistic political ascent.

I ask him how he reacted during the 2008 campaign, when many on the Republican right (including my “spirit-filled Christian” cousins in Houston), egged on by talk-radio “patriots,” believed ardently that Barack Hussein Obama is a devious, Qur’an-kissing Muslim bent on destroying the Land of the Free.

“That hurt me very much on a personal level,” the rabbi-cousin says. “That people who did not know him could freely express so many things that were absolutely untrue. That he was a Muslim. That he was against the state of Israel. I mean, I was at his wedding — and it was in a church!”

Capers Funnye never dreamed of becoming a Hebraic sermonizer. His goal, he says, was to carry the football for the Chicago Bears like his hero, Gayle Sayers.

Instead, he wound up at Howard University here in Washington, questioning, pondering, and finally finding answers to his spiritual longing in the books of the Old Testament.

Now, he says, he is not cowed by the nation’s economic predicament: “Difficult times are simply a test of our capacity to work together, to reason together, to grow together. Fear makes us contract. Hope makes us expand.”

His goal on this trip is to lobby Congress for compassion toward law-abiding, hard-working border-crossers, with or without the proper papers. (A petition for immigration reform is to be delivered to the White House by Rabbi Funnye and his colleagues in the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, but the president and his fruitful vine are in Europe.)

In Chicago, the chief rabbi of Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken is doing his part to season the American stew. Last week, he says, he welcomed one Puerto Rican and two families of Mexicans into the purifying bath — called a mikvah — that is an essential element of the formal conversion process.

“Do you plan to install one in the White House?” I tease him.

“Yes! Take the bowling alley out and put the mikvah in!” the rabbi says. “That would be good.”


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