When many people think of Judaism they normally identify the faith with people that appear to be from the Middle Eastern or European descent, but in actuality Jews can hail from any ethnic background and that’s exactly what one Chicago rabbi is out to prove.
According to the Chicago Tribune, Rabbi Capers Funnye Jr., a man of the African American background, sometimes gets intrigued stares when he enters a synagogue to join the daily prayer.
“Unfortunately, by and large, when you see any imagery of Jews in the United States, very seldom do you see members of my community,” said Funnye, who lives in Beverly. “But we have African-American Jews, African Jews, Filipino Jews, Mexican Jews, white Jews and biracial Jews. It is really what the Jewish people, in fact, have always looked like. … We have to promote that Jews have always been a global people.”
However, he is just as well versed as anyone else in the synagogue. At times he will make light of the confusion, while also explaining his journey to finding Judaism in his adult life.
In fact, the spiritual leader of Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation is set to become the head of the International Israelite Board of Rabbis, which includes black Jews in the U.S., Caribbean, South Africa, Uganda and Nigeria.
Not only is he a prominent Rabbi in Chicago but he is also directly related to Michelle Obama. He hopes that in time he will be able to advance race relations with Jewish communities worldwide, uniting the religion as a whole.
Rabbi Funnye is a part of the Ethiopian Hebrew movement, under the Israelite umbrella, which are Jews of African Descent. However, many Jews do not consider them Jewish without a traditional conversion, frustrating many who are devote Jews.
When Funnye first became attracted to the Jewish faith in the 1980s there was immense racial tension between the Jewish and Black community, but over time he worked hard on social justice issues to fight against discrimination and hate.
As reported by the Tribune, Jane Ramsey, former executive director of the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, said made the council brought African American Jews into the equation with the arrival of Rabbi Funnye.
“He’s deeply religious and deeply devoted to Judaism and also deeply devoted to creating jobs and housing and addressing racism and anti-Semitism,” Ramsey said. “It was very much a shared agenda.”
“The predominately Caucasian community wasn’t quite sure what to make of the African-American Jewish congregations in Chicago,” she added. “There was a lot of questioning. Are they Jews?”
However, with time he opened minds and fought vigilantly against anti-Semitism and racism, while also upholding the values of Judaism. He expected to take on the international duties once he is approved by dozens of rabbis.
Despite seeing resistance over the years, many support Funnye’s agenda, which includes adding women to the Israelite board, establishing stronger ties with Ethiopian Jews in Israel and establishing a common prayer book that honors Holocaust victims and the transportation of Africans across the Atlantic to become slaves.