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Mon, 04.14.1952

Capers Funnye, Rabbi born

Capers Funnye Jr.

*Capers Funnye was born on this date in 1952.  He is a Black Jewish Rabbi and activist.

From Georgetown, SC, the Low Country, Capers C. Funnye Jr's paternal ancestry among the Geechee, Gullah people of the Sea Islands.  His family moved to Chicago as part of the Great Migration of Blacks to industrial cities out of the South. He grew up on the South Side.

He connected more with his mother's extended family, 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, they got to know each other more as adults.  Funnye and they were involved in community organizing.  

Funnye was raised in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and 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 American 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, who practiced messianic Judaism, Funnye joined his congregation. 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 was incorporated in 1930 and later moved to Brooklyn, where Matthew established a seminary.  After Matthew died in 1973, there had been little dialog with white Jewish congregations, who disagreed with Black Jewish claims of historical 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.  He had also studied Judaism more intensively in Chicago, earning a Bachelor of Arts degree in Jewish Studies and a Master of Science in Human Service Administration from Chicago’s Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies.  

Funnye has said that he felt a sense of intellectual and spiritual liberation in the constant examination that Judaism encouraged.  Intending to build bridges to American Judaism, in 1985, Funnye undertook a second formal conversion to Judaism that was certified by a Conservative rabbinical court.  He is married to Mary White of Chicago. Her brother Frank White, Jr. is a businessman who served on Presidents Obama's national finance committee during his first presidential campaign.  He is also the first Black member of the Chicago Board of Rabbis, serving on the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs boards and the American Jewish Congress of the Midwest.

Funnye is active in the Institute for Jewish and Community Research, which reaches out to Black Jewish communities outside the United States, such as Beta Israel in Ethiopia and the Igbo Jews in Nigeria.  Funnye founded the organization in 1985 as a direct offshoot of Wentworth Arthur Matthew's Commandment Keepers.  He was ordained a rabbi by the Israelite Rabbinical Academy in 1985.  Funnye is the Rabbi of Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation of Chicago, Illinois.  

The congregation was started by Rabbi Horace Hasan from Bombay, India, in 1918 as the Ethiopian Hebrew Settlement Workers Association. Along with Blacks, members include Hispanics and whites who were born Jews and former Christians and Muslims. As is traditional with Judaism, they do not seek converts. Members 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 distinctively African American influences; At the same time, men and women sit separately as in Orthodox synagogues, and a chorus sings spirituals to the beat of a drum. It is housed in a former Ashkenazi synagogue in the Marquette Park neighborhood.  Funnye is also a co-founder, with Michelle Stein-Evers and Robin Washington, of the Alliance of Black Jews, which formed in 1995.  Although the idea of Black Jews is sometimes met with skepticism, Rabbi Funnye says, "I am a Jew, and that breaks through all color and ethnic barriers."  

In 1996, Funnye was the only official Black rabbi in the Chicago area recognized by the greater Jewish community.  Funnye is one of over 150,000 Blacks who practice Judaism in the United States, and studies are showing African Americans adopting Judaism is becoming much more common in the United States.  One synagogue even noted about half of the people currently converting to Judaism are Black.   

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