Rabbi Spurs Growth of Black Jewish Group

Jews of African descent moving to larger synagogue in Chicago

When he’s out of town and worships in an unfamiliar synagogue, Rabbi Capers C. Funnye Jr. tends to draw stares. An African-American Jew, Funnye wears a skullcap and reads psalms in Hebrew while draped in a prayer shawl. At the end of the service, he says, some worshiper inevitably asks in amazement, “Are you Jewish?” “No, I was walking by and I found this stuff outside,” he likes to answer. “And I wanted to come in and see how it worked.”

Funnye leads Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation, a predominantly black group that considers itself part of an ancient lineage of Jews of African descent. It also represents a contemporary increase in minority Jews in the United States as intermarriage and searches for spirituality make conversions more common. On Friday and Saturday, the growing congregation will dedicate a new home in Marquette Park that has more classroom space for the 45 children in its religious school. The group is moving out of a historic 1902 synagogue in the South Chicago neighborhood, having grown from 55 families to 70 in recent years, Funnye said.

African-Americans and other minorities are increasingly attending synagogues, said Gary A. Tobin, president of the San Francisco-based Institute for Jewish & Community Research. “We fully expect over the next 20 years for the face of Judaism in the U.S. to change dramatically from largely a white, Eastern or Central European group to include many more Asians, Latinos and blacks,” he said. Tobin estimates the number of black Jews nationwide at 50,000 to 100,000, though others dispute that figure. James Landing, a professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chicago who has studied black Judaism, says their numbers probably do not exceed 10,000.

Judaism most often is inherited rather than spread through adult conversions, which are disputed in some branches of the faith (an Orthodox rabbi, for example, would not recognize a conversion performed by a Reform rabbi). But today’s conversions are helping Judaism reclaim its heritage as a multiethnic religion that once stretched from Africa to China. At least 350,000 blacks, Asians and Latinos practice Judaism in the United States, according to a 2001 survey done for Tobin’s institute.

The Ethiopian Hebrew movement to which Funnye belongs began in the 1890s but traces its spiritual roots to Africa. Centuries ago, Jews moved from the Arabian peninsula to the Horn of Africa, established Jewish city-states in Ethiopia and spread their influence elsewhere, Funnye said. “We like to say we reverted, not converted,” he said. Some members of Funnye’s congregation wear traditional African robes, and the ancient psalms assume a gospel rhythm as the rabbi sings them in a baritone voice. Funnye calls the congregation conservadox. Men and women sit separately, but there are musical instruments in the service, something Orthodox congregations don’t allow. Members keep a form of kosher.

Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken traces its lineage to a congregation founded in 1915. The flock is mostly African-American, though there also are two white families, blacks from the Caribbean and a Russian whose father was a black American. They are moving into a synagogue at 6601 S. Kedzie Ave. that once was a safe house for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

The congregation is not connected to the American Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem, or Black Hebrews, an African-American group that claims Jewish ties. That group considers leader Ben Ami Ben Israel to be the Messiah, uses both the Old and New Testaments in worship and allows men to have multiple wives. Funnye’s group, by contrast, follows the Jewish scriptures and is widely recognized within Judaism – or as widely recognized as any group is in a disparate religion, Tobin said. Funnye is a member of the Chicago Board of Rabbis. Raised in an African Methodist Episcopal church in Chicago, Funnye was sent by his family to live for a time with an uncle in South Carolina. There, he experienced the racism of the segregated South, something that contributed to his spiritual questioning.

“I had never seen anybody in the pictures in my Bible who was black,” he said. “Everybody was white. Through all the segregation, all the stained-glass windows in our church had white people.” While working at an accounting firm in Chicago, he met two young blacks wearing skullcaps. They explained that they were Jews, and Funnye began studying with them. He was particularly influenced by a book called The Hebrewisms of West Africa: From Nile to Niger with the Jews, which traces Jewish influences on the continent.

“Judaism is a return to the faith community that we believe our forefathers and foremothers were a part of before the Middle Passage and the Atlantic slave trade,” Funnye said. “We’ve simply found a very good space in the Jewish community.” Funnye’s synagogue is actively seeking new members by reaching out to people who don’t have a religious home. “We certainly think that Judaism is a viable option for those that are seeking,” he said.


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