Rabbi Capers Funnye bridges gap between mainstream Jewish and black congregations

GRAND RAPIDS — Rabbi Capers Funnye says the partnership between slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Joshua Heschel — who is said to have had a major impact on King’s thinking on nonviolence, race and human rights — can serve as a model for contemporary relationships between African-Americans and Jews.

“What I hope to do is issue a challenge to look for ways those relationships can be rekindled, reignited,” Funnye said.

He will speak next weekend at Congregation Ahavas Israel and at Revolution Christian Ministry in Grand Rapids.

Funnye is the spiritual leader of Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation in Chicago. He also serves as a senior research associate for the Institute of Jewish and Community Research in San Francisco.

He is the first African-American member of the Chicago Board of Rabbis, is involved in the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs and is vice president of the Israelite Board of Rabbis.

Funnye is well-known in Jewish circles for serving as a bridge between the mainstream and the much smaller, and largely separate, world of black Jewish congregations.

The first cousin, once removed, of Michelle Obama, wife of President-elect Barack Obama, Funnye was raised in the African Methodist Episcopal church and looked at a lot of religions before settling on Judaism.

“My search started at about age 19,” he said. “I had issues with the idea of the total embodiment of God being encased in one single individual.

“For me, Judaism has been a well that I am constantly able to nourish my soul from.”

Funnye said it is estimated that there are between 150,000 and 200,000 black Jews.

His congregation in Chicago has about 200 members who are African-American, African, Mexican-American and Ashkenazim, or of European descent.

David Krishef, rabbi at Congregation Ahavas Israel in Grand Rapids, said Funnye’s visit is part of a cross-cultural program between his congregation and Revolution Ministries.

“The Jewish community and the African-American community have relatively little contact with each other,” Krishef said. “I think, in general, the more we know about other communities and subcommunities, the better we are.”


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