After 25 years in the rabbinate, Rabbi Capers Funnye finally made his first trip to Canada this week to speak about African-American and African Jewry.
As leader of Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation, the first African-American member of the Chicago Board of Rabbis, and a cousin of the U.S. president’s wife, Michelle Obama, Rabbi Funnye had a lot to discuss with the sold-out crowd at Toronto’s Congregation Darchei Noam.
“I am here because I want to tell you my story, and the story of countless other African-American and African Jews who indeed feel that they are ba’al tshuvah, returners to the faith,” Funnye began.
While he displayed photos of both early and contemporary leaders of African Jewish communities, Funnye shared the practices and dreams of congregations often forgotten in contemporary Jewish dialogue.
“When the people of Israel spread to Africa, our faith was often taken from us as the faith of others was forced upon us. But within many communities, like the Igbo in Nigeria, there exists a desire to once again be part of the People of Israel, for integration with the Jewish People.”
Through Be’chol Lashon, a non-profit initiative devoted to global Jewish diversity, Rabbi Funnye has assisted with Jewish community-building across the continent of Africa and helped hundreds in Uganda formally convert to Judaism.
“We don’t knock on doors,” he explains. “We go to communities that wholeheartedly want to return to Judaism, who have inherited many Jewish practices and ask us to give them help recover what they have lost.”
Many of these communities have long practiced brit milah on the eighth day, and have retained ancient Jewish rites despite the barriers brought on my language and distance.
Funnye also spoke about his own congregation in Chicago, Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation. Despite its name, Rabbi Funnye is quick to point that out members come from a variety of ethnic backgrounds.
“We might call ourselves Ethiopian Hebrews, but most of us are not Ethiopians,” he explains. “We include Ethiopia in our name because it is considered to be the only country in Africa not to be colonized. So Ethiopia represents to us the unconquered spirit of a people.”
Beth Shalom, like Rabbi Funnye, does not formally affiliate itself with any denomination.
“I’ve never seen the word ‘Orthodox’ or ‘Conservative’ or ‘Reform’ in the Halachah. No one has a certificate from God,” he said. “The Halachah is open to be interpreted in many ways. It’s not about whose Judaism is the best Judaism.”
As Funnye says, “I don’t give anybody my soul. No one can say I’m not Jewish. It wouldn’t stop me from studying Torah or going to shul on Shabbat.”
And when barriers have been erected between his community and global Jewish peoplehood, Funnye says it has inspired him to work hard and get his story across. In 1995, he co-founded the Alliance of Black Jews, and today he sits on the boards of the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs and the American Jewish Congress.
In addition to the work he does to build bridges between different Jewish communities, Funnye also works to build bridges between Jews, African-Americans and people of all faiths.
“This year, we had 80 Muslims in our social hall for Ramadan and we broke bread to dialogue,” he said.
“Things like poverty cut across religious lines, so why not work collectively on social issues?”
At the end of the day, Funnye describes Judaism as “the way my spirituality synthesizes with my intellect.” While he believes the Jewish People have always been very diverse, he notes that other communities “don’t have to accept me for me to accept them, and for me to accept myself.”
Funnye’s talk was organized by Darchei Noam’s Jewish diversity committee, and co-sponsored by Beth Emeth Bais Yehuda Synagogue and the Lodzer Congregation.