Capers C. Funnye Jr.
April 14, 1952
|Relatives||Michelle Obama (cousin)|
Capers C. Funnye Jr. (//; born April 14, 1952) is an African-American rabbi, who leads the 200-member Beth Shalom B'nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation of Chicago, Illinois, assisted by rabbis Avraham Ben Israel and Joshua V. Salter.
Born in Georgetown, South Carolina, he moved with his family to Chicago. He became interested in Judaism while in college at Howard University and has gone through two conversion rituals. He has led efforts to coordinate with both Black Jewish groups and mainline Judaism.
Early life and education
Capers Funnye Jr. was born in 1952 in Georgetown, South Carolina in the Low Country, with paternal ancestry among the GeeChee people (or Gullah) of the Sea Islands. They are an ethnic group that kept strong African traditions. Variations of his surname are common in Nigeria and West Africa.
His family moved to Chicago as part of the Great Migration of African Americans to industrial cities out of the South. He grew up on the South Side. There he got to see more of his mother's extended family in Chicago, including future First Lady of the United States Michelle Obama, his first cousin once removed. His mother Verdelle (Robinson) Funnye was a sister of Fraser Robinson Jr., Michelle (Robinson) Obama's paternal grandfather; their family also was from Georgetown and had Gullah ancestry. He is 12 years older than Michelle. While their families frequently visited when they were young, the two of them got to know each other more as adults. In 1992 she married Barack Obama, the future President of the United States (2009-2017). Funnye and they were involved in community organizing.
Funnye was raised in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the first independent black denomination. At 17, he was encouraged by his minister to enter the clergy. Dissatisfied with Christianity during his college years at Howard University and influenced by movements for civil rights and black nationalism, he investigated other religions, including Islam. After meeting with Rabbi Robert Devine, the spiritual leader of the House of Israel Congregation in Chicago, which practiced a kind of messianic Judaism, Funnye joined his congregation. Related Black Jewish movements in the United States had started in the late 19th century in Kansas.
Funnye became drawn to the "more conventional teachings of a black, Brooklyn-based rabbi named Levi Ben Levy, the chief rabbi of the International Israelite Board of Rabbis. This group has its roots in the Commandment Keepers Congregation of the Living God, founded in 1919 by Wentworth Arthur Matthew in Harlem. It incorporated in 1930 and later moved to Brooklyn, where Matthew established a seminary. After Matthew's death in 1973, there had been little dialog with white Jewish congregations, who disagreed with Black Jewish claims of historic descent from ancient Israel. Funnye studied long-distance with Levy for five years, and Levy ordained him in 1985 through the Israelite Rabbinical Academy of Brooklyn, founded by Matthew. The Academy does not have ties to any mainstream Jewish denomination.
With the goal of building bridges to United States Judaism, in 1985 Funnye undertook a second formal conversion to Judaism that was certified by a Conservative rabbinical court. He had also studied Judaism more intensively in Chicago, earning a Bachelor of Arts degree in Jewish Studies and Master of Science in Human Service Administration from the Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies there. Funnye has said that he felt a sense of intellectual and spiritual liberation in the constant examination that Judaism encouraged.
Marriage and family
In 1985, Funnye was selected as assistant rabbi at Beth Shalom B'nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation in Chicago; with 200 members, it is now one of the largest black synagogues in the United States. Its congregation is mostly African American. Funnye is the first African-American member of the Chicago Board of Rabbis, and serves on the boards of the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs and the American Jewish Congress of the Midwest. In 1996, Funnye was the only black rabbi in the Chicago area.
Funnye has been active in the Institute for Jewish and Community Research, reaching out to historically black Jewish communities outside the United States. These include the Beta Israel in Ethiopia, which are formally recognized by Israeli authorities as Jewish, and the Igbo Jews in Nigeria, which are not.
Funnye's current congregation was founded by Rabbi Horace Hasan from Bombay (now Mumbai), India, in 1918 as the Ethiopian Hebrew Settlement Workers Association. Along with African Americans, members include Hispanics and whites who were born Jews; the majority of the congregation has converted to Judaism. As is traditional with Judaism, the congregation does not engage in missionary activity. Members who want to convert 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. The congregation occupies a synagogue built by an earlier Ashkenazi congregation in the Marquette Park neighborhood. Funnye says they have not applied to belong to any mainstream synagogue organizations, as they do not feel the need.
In 1995, Funnye was a co-founder, with Michelle Stein-Evers of California and Robin Washington of Boston, of the National Conference of Black Jews. Washington is also Jewish and is the editor of the African-American newspaper, Bay State Banner.  They have worked to broaden the conversation among black Jews and Black Hebrews across the country, as well as to build bridges to conventional Judaism, made up predominately of whites. Funnye said, "I am a Jew, and that breaks through all color and ethnic barriers."
On April 2, 2009, Funnye was invited for the first time "to speak at a white, mainstream synagogue in New York", at the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue, a Reform congregation. He called it his "Broadway debut". The congregation had reached out to black Jewish congregations to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and about one-quarter of the audience were black Jews. Funnye spoke about King and Barack Obama, the night before the latter's inauguration as president. The next day he and his family went to Washington to join the Obamas in inaugural events.
In October 2015, Funnye was installed as Chief Rabbi of the International Israelite Board of Rabbis. In August 2016, he was inaugurated to that position. The board is made up of "people who identify themselves as Black Jews or Israelites."
- Chafets, Zev (2009-04-05). "Obama's Rabbi". The New York Times. Retrieved 2009-04-05.
- Anthony Weiss (2008-09-02). "Michelle Obama Has a Rabbi in Her Family". The Forward. Retrieved 2008-09-02.
- "Examining Michelle Obama's Lowcountry roots". The Island Packet. April 4, 2009. Archived from the original on September 27, 2011. Retrieved August 10, 2011.
- Voices on Antisemitism: Interview with Rabbi Capers Funnye Jr., 25 September 2008, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, accessed 12 April 2014
- "With new chief rabbi, black Hebrew-Israelites make bid to enter the Jewish mainstream". Washington Post.
- Anthony B. Pinn, The African American Religious Experience in America (Google eBook), Greenwood Publishing Group, 2006, p. 84
- Wright, Abbi (February 27, 2002). "Black Hebrews try to find their place in the world". Medill News Service, University of Chicago.
- "Biography of Rabbi Capers C. Funnye Jr" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on September 5, 2008. Retrieved 2008-02-13.
- Niko Koppel (2008-03-16). "Black Rabbi Reaches Out to Mainstream of His Faith". The New York Times. Retrieved 2008-03-16.
- "Divine Law or Sexism?". NPR. 2007-07-12. Retrieved 2008-02-13.
- "Farrakhan inspires and infuriates at once". USA Today. Associated Press. 1996-02-16. Retrieved 2008-02-13.
- Miriam Rinn (Summer 1995). "Black Jews: Changing the Face of American Jewry" (PDF). The Reporter: Women's American ORT. Women's American ORT. pp. 11–13. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2011-07-25. Retrieved 2008-03-16.
- "New Hebrew Israelite Chief Rabbi Capers Funnye Makes a Play for History".
- "The International Israelite Board of Rabbis". blackjews.org. Retrieved 25 September 2018.
- "Zev Chafets, Obama’s Rabbi," The New York Times, April 5, 2009.
- Beth Shalom B'nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation's official website
- Voices on Antisemitism: Interview with Rabbi Capers Funnye Jr., 25 September 2008, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, podcast and transcript also available online