King’s Legacy and Obama’s Inauguration Unite

The SWFS Kosher Gospel Extravaganza!
With Joshua Nelson, Cissy Houston and special guest speaker Rabbi Capers Funnye, Jr.

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, January 19. 20009

Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch of Stephen Wise Free Synagogue said that when Obama was picked by the American people to become next President, it was not that he was the best Colored American, but the best American for the job. Americans voted for Obama because of the content of his character. He said this with the Jew among the Obamas sitting right there in front row – Rabbi Cappers C. Funnye Jr. of the 200 members Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation in Chicago, Illinois. The first African-American Rabbi to be admitted to the Chicago Board of Rabbis, and his wife Mary.

Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation Web site’s logo. Rabbi Funnye is also the first African-American member of the Chicago Board of Rabbis, serves on the boards of the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs and the American Jewish Congress of the Midwest, and is active in the Institute for Jewish and Community Research, which reaches out to black Jewish communities outside the United States, such as the Beta Israel in Ethiopia and the Igbo Jews in Nigeria. The organization was founded by Funnye in 1985 as a direct offshoot of Wentworth Arthur Matthew’s Commandment Keepers.

Like most of his congregation, Rabbi Funnye was not born into Judaism; he adopted the religion later in life. He was born a Methodist but, dissatisfied, investigated other religions including Islam, before converting to Judaism, feeling a sense of intellectual and spiritual liberation in the constant examination that he saw the religion encouraging.

The congregation was started by Rabbi Horace Hasan from Bombay, India, in 1918 as the Ethiopian Hebrew Settlement Workers Association. Along with African-Americans, members include Hispanics and whites who were born Jews, as well as former Christians and Muslims. As is traditional with Judaism, they do not seek converts, and members must study Judaism for a year before undergoing a traditional conversion requiring men to be ritually circumcised and women to undergo ritual immersion in a mikvah. The synagogue is “somewhere between Conservative and Modern Orthodox” with distinctive African-American influences; while men and women sit separately as in Orthodox synagogues, a chorus sings spirituals to the beat of a drum. It is currently housed in a former Ashkenazi synagogue in the Marquette Park neighborhood.

Although the idea of African American Jews is sometimes met with skepticism, Rabbi Funnye says, “I am a Jew, and that breaks through all color and ethnic barriers.”

Rabbi Funnye is a co-founder, with Michelle Stein-Evers and Robin Washington, of the Alliance of Black Jews, which formed in 1995.

Rabbi Capers C. Funnye Jr and wife Mary. photo taken by Pincas Jawetz on January 19, 2009 at the SWFS MLK evening.
The evening was sponsored by T the band included three additional musicians Shirley and William R. Fleisher Family Foundation and was put together by Cantor Singer of the SWFS.
The stelar musical performances were by:
* JOSHUA NELSON – a Black Jewish Gospel singer whose voice and arrangements of Jewish liturgy follow in the footsteps of Gospel greats including the late Mahalia Jackson. At times he sounded like Louis Armstrong. He has performed with the likes of Wynton Marsalis, Aretha Franklin, and Carrie Smith. He sang while at the piano.
* CISSY HOUSTON – known as the matriarch of a singing dynasty that includes her niece Dionne Warwick and her daughter Whitney Houston. She herself is a two-time Grammy award-winnning R&B;singer. She has performed for over 50 years with some of the most important performers – including Aretha Franklin and Elvis Presley.
* FRANK LONDON – best known for his role as trumpeter in the New York City-based klezmer band The Klezmatics. He is also a member of Hasidic New Wave and leads “Frank London’s Klezmer Brass Allstars.” He was a co-founder of both the Les Miserables Brass Band and the Klezmer Conservatory Band. He is a virtuoso and all around musician. When Joshua London left the piano – he took over.
* The band included three additional excellent musicians – a drummer, a bass player, and a back-up singer.

Haim Handwerker is the New York business and culture correspondent of the influential Israeli newspaper HAARETZ, Eventually he was called upon to interview Rabbi Funnye so there was a clear jump from the Jewish and MLK Memorial topic of the day, to the topic of tomorrow – The Inaugural in Washington. The Funnye family stopped for the SWFS event on their way from Chicago to Washington, where the following day they were going to sit in the family section at the Inaugural events.

Rabbi Funnye said that the “Dream” is “unequivocal equality for people all over the world – the acceptance of the other.” “I have experienced being the other also in the Synagogue” he said. Then he said that the day we will have peace here and in Eretz Israel (The Land of Israel) means peace for the Jews and the Palestinians. We have not yet achieved the dream – this is a work in progress. The new Administration will have to help.

When he was asked how he was related to Michelle Obama, he said that Michelle’s grandfather was the oldest in a line of siblings, so that is how the “once removed” was created, when my mother and Michelle’s mother were of the same age – and were like sisters. Michelle is of the age of his younger sisters. He said that the family understood the importance of education – “this is something they can not take away from you,” he said. Marion, the mother-in-law is now the matriarch of the family Obama seemingly is a workaholic. The night he was declared victor – he went home to work. When asked about Obama’s relations to Jews, Rabbi Funnye pointed out that when Obama came to Chicago he went to work in a Jewish law firm. He always appreciated Jews and he never could understand how there were Jews that said Obama is not good for the State of Israel or for Jewish issues. I think he will be for the State of Israel’s Continuous existence, but he will talk to others. HE HAS GOOD PEOPLE THAT WILL TELL HIM – BEFORE WE SHOOT LET’S TALK.

Asked if he will speak for the Jewish Community, he said that if the Jewish Community asks me – I will do what I can; I have for years built bridges between Jewish and black communities.

Further he said, we need to understand the Aliya (the right of Jews to move to Israel) is for all Jews. The SMAH (reference to the prayer – “Here me Israel…” is for all Jews. My house should be called a house of prayer – for all to come and stay – those who want to come into the Jewish Community.

Asked about cases of Synagogues defaced by Muslims in Chicago, he said that Rabbi Josua Salter and some Muslim Imams joined to condemn those acts. I talk to anyone that is ready to sit down and share a discussion about religious and ethnic groups. Sometimes I find that people say the same thing and do not realize it. I spoke about peace between Pakistanis and Indians in Chicago.

About how he became a Jew he said that it happened when he saw a Kipa. That was when he was with Arthur Anderson in the Chicago headquarters. “I learned from Rav Cook that when you take away everything you are left with the IIESH – means “THERE IS” – the IS. Judaism has a richness that born Jews do not think about it. I feel that I was continuously enriched by the studies. “Well water nourishes your whole being.”

I want more Jews to be imbued with Judaism. We talk about 150,000 – 200,000 Black Jews. There is a Philadelphia community, a Caribbean Community. He follows these as he is also the VP of the Board of Israelites – His congregation includes African Americans, Latino, whites, some Ashkenazi even – some cases that have adopted children and want them to see Jews that are black like them.

The final song was “WE HAVE OVERCOME TODAY” that replaced the “We Shall Overcome Someday.”
The interesting thing was to look at the mosaic of faces in that Synagogue and realize how varied they looked, but united in spirit.


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