November 26, 2008
Obama's cousin-in-law Rabbi Capers Funnye battles to open the gates of Judaism [VIDEO]
Web extra video: A Chicago TV station visits Temple Beth Shalom B'nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation
(Page 2 - Previous Page)Funnye is vice president of the International Israelite Board of Rabbis, a group of 20 rabbis who serve five congregations in New York, one in Philadelphia, one in Chicago and one in Barbados.
Many black Jews believe that the original Israelites were African -- they came out of Egypt in North Africa -- and they consider themselves not converts, but reverts, going back to their true origins.
There is tremendous diversity among groups calling themselves Black Hebrew, Israelites or Black Jews. While some black Jewish congregations hew to Jewish theology and practice, others retain a messianic angle, including Jesus in their theology. Some have Jewish aspects but are mingled with many other traditions.
Funnye's adoption of halachic standards for his congregation stems in part from his desire to connect his flock with the mainstream Jewish community, something he has worked on for years.
After getting his degrees at Spertus, he worked as a business manager there until 1991. He not only got to meet Jewish luminaries, such as Elie Wiesel, but built relationships with many rabbis and professors.
He has touched many parts of the African American and Chicago Jewish communities: He has taught at congregational schools, he lectures widely, has consulted with the Spertus Museum of Judaica and the Du Sable Museum of African American History and has served on the boards of Chicago's Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, Akiba Schechter Jewish Day School and the Chicago Board of Rabbis.
Funnye's near-unanimous acceptance onto the board in 1997 held historical significance. His predecessors in New York, who had attempted to join their board of rabbis in the 1940s and '50s, did not even get dignified with a rejection -- they were simply ignored.
He also reaches out to the larger African American community through coalitions with neighborhood churches and has hosted joint programs with Muslim groups, as well.
Now, Funnye is extending that acceptance across the Atlantic to Africa.
Funnye is the associate director and Chicago regional director of BeChol Lashon, Hebrew for "in every language," an initiative of the San Francisco-based Institute for Jewish and Community Research (IJCR), where he is a senior researcher. The program reaches out to Jews of color from all over the world, from the anusim communities of Latin America to African tribes rediscovering Jewish roots, like the Abuyudaya of Uganda. Funnye is coordinator for IJCR's Pan-African Jewish Alliance, which seeks to connect African American Jews with Jews in Africa. Funnye has been to Africa six times and works primarily with the Ibo of Nigeria.
Ongoing research by the Pan-African Jewish Alliance has found that there may be as many as 30,000 Nigerians reclaiming Jewish roots. An Ibo oral tradition holds that their ancestors were Hebrews who migrated from Israel to Africa 1,500 years ago. While many have no trace of Jewish heritage, others have held on to traditions. The Ibo circumcise their boys on the eighth day and gather their elders by sounding teruah and shevarim notes on the ram's horn. Their priests wear a white garment with blue stripes, fringed all around. As the Ibo begin to explore their Jewish roots and try to connect to the worldwide Jewish community, Funnye's congregation is raising funds to build a sister synagogue in Nigeria, and he is working to get the Ibo the educational materials and leadership they need.
"Africa is ripe with hundreds, even thousands of people who claim a link to Judaism, and they're asking the question, 'Where is the gate that leads to Jewish peoplehood?'"
Funnye wants the answer to that question to resonate a little more loudly and clearly.
He understands that most American Jews still aren't used to Jews of color, but he is convinced that as more people around the world discover and explore either their ancient Jewish roots or their dormant Jewish spirit, the wider Jewish community will begin to take seriously the words of Isaiah: "My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations."
"I believe those biblical prophecies are going to have more people reaching out and searching and going on spiritual journeys, and, ultimately, Judaism is going to be a place they want to examine and investigate. I only hope and pray that the gates to our synagogues are open and welcoming."
At the seminar in Encino last week, Valley Beth Shalom's Schulweis cautioned that to move forward, rabbis must acknowledge the sometimes dominant strain in Jewish tradition that holds a deep suspicion of conversion.
But, he said, Jewish texts and history have an equally strong tradition of welcoming the proselyte, and it is that tradition the seminar explored and pushed forward.
The rabbis shared best practices, studied relevant texts and explored innovative ways of making all aspects of conversion deeply spiritual and uplifting, not just for the people converting but for everyone around them.
The Sandra Caplan Bet Din's meshing of divergent streams of Judaism -- a collaboration that took several years to negotiate -- augers well for the more expansive bridges Funnye and the Los Angeles rabbis are trying to build.
"The remarkable thing about Los Angeles is we have colleagues who like each other, respect each other and are willing to talk to each other," said Rabbi Stewart Vogel, president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, an interdenominational umbrella group. "When you can engage in dialogue, anything can happen. We can get past stereotypes and prejudices, and we can work together to create the Jewish community we want."
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