Rabbi Capers Funnye Jr. is spiritual leader of the 200-member Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation in Chicago. A Jew By Choice, he is active not only in relations between blacks and Jews but in reaching out to black Jewish communities around the world. And as a first cousin, once removed to First Lady Michelle Obama, Rabbi Funnye (pronounced Fun-AY) had a front seat to American history unfolding. NY Minute spoke to the rabbi just before Martin Luther King Day, a local appearance at Stephen Wise Free Synagogue Monday night and the Obama inauguration, which he attended with his family.
Q: Did you ever believe you would see this day?
A: To be honest, no. I thought maybe in the next generation, not in my generation. But, Boruch Hashem.
Were you involved in the campaign?
I was involved on a personal level, encouraging people to vote for him. When he got the [Democratic] nomination, it took my breath away. And that sense of awe was doubled when he actually won the election.
As a rabbi, how did you react to claims that Obama would be bad for Israel?
I was very disappointed, because many of his staunchest supporters were Jews from the Chicago community and across the country.
What are some of the black Jewish communities you are in contact with around the world?
I visited the Ugandan Abayudaya in July. Rabbi Gershon Simozu is a wonderful spiritual leader. Several rabbis went over there and 250 people were converted, which was a striking and beautiful experience. I am also working with emerging Jewish communities in Nigeria, the Igbo Jews. Many of these people are desperately wanting to learn and return to modern-day Judaism. The Institute for Jewish and Community Research, based in San Francisco and headed by Dr. Gary Tobin, has provided fantastic assistance in our work in Nigeria and Uganda as well as South Africa, here we have the Lemba community, who also have ancient ties to Judaism.
We are working with Jewish communities not only in Africa but in South America, Spain and Portugal, where you have the anusim who were forced to convert at the time of the Inquisition. We are working with these communities around the world who are seeking to halachically become part of the Jewish people again.
How do you assess the state of American black-Jewish relations today?
There has been no great controversy that has arisen of late, so relations overall are good. I can only go by my experience here in Chicago, but I would like to see a greater amount of interaction between the Jewish community and African Americans. One of the things I like to encourage when I speak at a synagogue is interaction — are you involved with the black church in your community? If so, my coming might be an opportunity for a synagogue and church to do some bridge-building.
What drew you to Judaism?
The short version is that Judaism to me offered an opportunity for me to examine and question. Because one has questions doesn’t mean that one does not have faith. In some communities when you have faith you do not question. But just as Moses questioned Hashem as he says in this week’s sidra, ‘Who am I that I should go to speak to the people of Israel or to Pharoah?” … Judaism lets you expand the intellect and at the same time does not do anything to impede the growth of our souls and being.