CHICAGO (JTA) – Rabbi Capers Funnye, spiritual leader of Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation in Chicago, wants you to know that he likes gefilte fish — a lot.
"I love it," he told JTA in a recent interview. "I love lox. I love borscht. Some of my congregants don’t even know what borscht is."
Funnye’s congregants are predominantly African Americans from the South Side of Chicago, so perhaps that’s no surprise. But while gefilte fish won’t be debuting anytime soon at the kiddush at Beth Shalom, the rabbi is bringing his congregants closer to the broader Chicago Jewish community in ways most of his African American rabbinical colleagues have not yet dared.
"I have made it my point, on a personal level, to involve myself in the Jewish community," Funnye said. "I’ve worked for Jewish organizations. I’ve graduated from Jewish institutions. My children went to Jewish day school."
Just a few weeks ago, he attended the White House Chanukah party.
"It’s important for me, on a very personal level, for my children and for other Jews, to see Judaism is beyond any racial group," Funnye said.
Black Jewish congregations — most prefer to be called "Hebrews" or "Israelites" — have existed in the United States since the first decades of the 20th century, but they generally have remained apart from the broader Jewish community.
In part, the divide is a legacy of segregation that still separates black and white churches, as well as synagogues. It also stems from what Gary Tobin, president of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research, describes as the Jewish community’s "obsessively silly" preoccupation with who qualifies as a Jew.
"I think Jews, having been rejected, persecuted and discriminated against all these centuries, have incorporated a kind of self-criticism and overbearing concern with who’s in and who’s out," Tobin said. "It’s kind of an internalized oppression at this point. While it’s a legitimate concern, Jews have become obsessed with it. You don’t find Catholics, Episcopalians and Muslims spending the amount of time Jews do deciding who’s a real Muslim and who’s a real Catholic."
The problem is exacerbated by the belief, central to the black Jewish narrative, that the original Jews were Africans. Like other African Americans who have embraced non-Christian faiths, black Jews see in Judaism a means to recapture a heritage denied them by the slave trade — a fact that likely explains their great affinity for the story of Exodus. As a result, some are reluctant to undergo conversion or otherwise take steps that might promote greater acceptance by the white Ashkenazi majority for fear it would undermine their claims to be of Jewish descent.
"We are people that are coming back into the knowledge of who we are," said Moshe Ben Yisrael, the Chicago synagogue’s president, who everyone refers to as Elder Moshe. "We are finding out something about our identity. We identify with the God of the Tanach, of Israel."
Funnye is one of the few Jews, black or white, working actively to bridge the racial divide among Jews. He is believed to be the only black rabbi in the country to serve on his local board of rabbis, and he cooperates with a number of Jewish communal institutions, including Tobin’s institute, where he is a research associate. He encourages exchanges between his congregation and mainstream synagogues in Chicago’s northern suburbs.
Funnye was ordained at the Israelite Rabbinical Academy in New York, where all such black Israelite rabbis are trained.
"What’s interesting about Capers is that he bridges the world between white, normative mainstream Judaism in the United States," Tobin said. "He’s unique, which is unfortunate."
Funnye’s acceptance by the broader Jewish community was made possible in part by his willingness to undergo a formal conversion — or "reversion" as he likes to say — with a mixed rabbinic court of Orthodox and Conservative rabbis in 1985.
All newcomers to Beth Shalom are required to do the same, including immersion in a mikvah and, for men, a ritual drawing of blood to symbolize the covenant. For men who are not circumcised, Funnye makes them undergo the full procedure, conducted under anesthetic with the assistance of an Orthodox urologist. He estimates that he has converted 40 members of his congregation.
"If they came here to this congregation under my leadership and under my tutelage, then they had to go through the ‘standard halachic precepts’ for one to be a Jew," Funnye said. "But that does not diminish our understanding that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were Jews of color."
Though it’s been two decades since Funnye first participated formally in a mainstream Jewish organization, the memory still causes him to stretch out in his chair, throw his head back and let out a hearty belly laugh.
"I wasn’t invited to the first Jewish-African American conclaves," Funnye recalled. "Until one Protestant, very prominent minister, back in the 80s, made an accusation about the Jews being racist and using black people. And one rabbi said, ‘Oh no. We have black Jews!’"
Services at Beth Shalom would be familiar to any shul-goer. The full Torah portion is read in Hebrew from a scroll. Prayers are chanted mostly in English from the Artscroll Siddur, a widely used Orthodox prayerbook.
Men and women sit separately, but there is no physical barrier, or mechitzah, between them. After services, Funnye blesses the wine and bread in Hebrew before digging into a lunch of chicken, turkey and spaghetti.
But the congregation also maintains traditions uniquely their own that are deeply colored by the African-American experience. After the Torah service, a Gospel-style choir takes the stage and — accompanied by a CD and live drums and guitar — performs several numbers, including "Lift Every Voice," also known as the “Black National Anthem.” Men greet each other by grasping at the elbow and bringing their heads together three times, symbolic of the three forefathers. Some wear pendants with maps of Africa around their necks.
When associate rabbi Joshua Salter — also ordained at the Israelite Rabbinical Academy in New York — stood to "bring the message" at a recent service, he strutted around the stage like a Baptist preacher, delivering his lines in a call-and-response style while congregants cried out "Teach" and "Hallelujah."
When he finished, Salter gave a "shout out" to members of the congregation who were sick.
Later in the afternoon, in one of the synagogue classrooms, Elder Moshe delivered a rambling talk on current events, covering topics as diverse as racial violence in Louisiana and the prospects for reconciliation on the Korean peninsula. His politics, which included harsh words for the Bush administration, were presented as lessons stemming from the Bible.
"Our Judaism is not the Judaism of just nodding and waving and going along with the program," Elder Moshe said afterwards. "Our thing is: We are provoked to think. It says we should be a light unto the nations, right? That’s the way we look on it. So how can we be a light if we going right along locked in lockstep with a system that is bent on destruction of God’s people?"
Funnye was raised in the African Methodist Episcopal church. Many of his congregants also were raised as Christians and tell broadly similar stories of having felt disconnected from their faith until stumbling upon Judaism.
Bruce Carey, a social worker who commutes to Beth Shalom from Gary, Ind., said Christianity never made sense to him as a child but Judaism helped reconnect him with his African identity.
James Brazelton, who "reverted" with his wife and daughter and took on the name Yahath Ben Yahudah, said his spiritual awakening occurred while watching "The Ten Commandments,” the classic dramatization of the Exodus story by Cecil B. DeMille. "It overwhelmed me with fear," Brazelton said of the film.
Dinah Levi, who grew up Baptist and had a bat mitzvah at 56, said she’s always struck when she meets Ashkenazi Jews who can’t believe there are black Jews.
"They’re always surprised," Levi said, "and they should not be."