While American Jews followed the airlifts of thousands of Ethiopian Jews to Israel, Rabbi Capers C. Funnye Jr. said most are unaware that up to 300,000 Jews of African descent live in the United States today.
Accordingly, African-American Jews often find great reluctance within the greater Jewish community, particularly among European-descended Ashkenazi Jews, to accept their right as Jews to recite the Sh’ma and wear a tallit.
Funnye is at the forefront of this battle for religious rights for African-American Jews.
Funnye is the spiritual leader of Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation in Chicago. Founded in 1913 as the Ethiopian Hebrew Settlement Workers’ Association, it is the oldest community of Jews of African descent in the United States. Funnye sits as a director on the Chicago Board of Rabbis.
From the beginnings of the black Jewish movement in America, Funnye said, “it seems that the mindset was, ‘If in fact you are a Jew, but you don’t look like me, then I have to question your Jewishness and how you in fact became a Jew.’
“I must rush to say that, from the perspective of the African-American Jewish community, we have not requested or required that those in the Reform, Conservative or Orthodox movements qualify themselves to us as Jews,” he said. “But rather if they are wearing tefillin, if they don the tallit, doing Shacharit [morning services], if they are in fact reading and using various forms of siddurim [prayerbooks], if they are making an aliyah with the Sefer Torah [reciting blessings], we take them to be Jews. We don’t believe that they are Christians doing Jewish things.”
Funnye will speak Sunday, March 21 at the San Francisco Main Library’s Koret Auditorium. The lecture, titled “The Experience of Black Jews in the United States,” is one of a three-part series on issues of race and ethnicity among American Jews.
Jews of African descent are not an American anomaly. Communities of black Jews exist across Africa, Asia and Latin America, as well as in Israel, which itself lies near the convergence of Africa, Asia and Europe.
In America, Funnye stands at the little-known but important convergence of Jewish and African-American cultures, promoting mutual understanding. He is likely the only rabbi who maintains a working dialogue with the controversial Nation of Islam minister Louis Farrakhan, whose sweeping statements about Jewish conspiracies against African-Americans have led Jews to view him as a powerful and dangerous anti-Semite.
Of Farrakhan, Funnye said, “We’ve spoken in the past about taking a brush and painting all Jews as being against black people, taking a brush and saying that the Jews are responsible for the state of the economic condition of black people in America, and I have simply pointed out to him that it’s not so.”
Funnye asked Farrakhan whether such statements about the Jews were similar to saying, “If blacks move into your neighborhood, your property values will go down.”
Farrakhan, he said, replied, “Well, that’s prejudice.”
The rabbi responded: “So you don’t see yourself as being prejudiced when you make these types of statements about the Jews, trying to take the face away from Judaism and making a Jew some faceless being?…No, minister, you know better than that and I know better than that.”
Funnye was raised in the African Methodist Episcopal Church and offered a scholarship to the denomination’s theological seminary in South Carolina. Disillusioned with Christian theology, he began to study Judaism wholeheartedly in the early 1970s in Chicago and New York. Funnye, who is married and has four children, underwent a conversion according to Jewish law with his family. He was ordained at the Israelite Rabbinical Academy in New York, which describes itself as essentially Orthodox and primarily focused on training rabbis to lead black Jewish congregations.
Funnye noted that Jews of African descent often find an easier peace with African-Americans of Christian, Muslim and other faiths than with other Jews. Funnye’s congregation has held pulpit and choir exchanges as well as ecumenical services with Protestant churches.
Ironically, some black ministers have been reluctant to embrace African-American Jews, he said, because the Ashkenazi have laid claim to being the real Jews. Funnye said the ministers fear that if they recognize black Jews as legitimate, white Jews may consider them anti-Semitic.
Funnye strives to dispel the notion of Judaism as a primarily European, Ashkenazi-based faith and culture.
“To us,” Funnye said, “nothing could be further from the truth. Jews certainly are from various parts of Europe, but Jews are also from various parts of Asia and various parts of Africa, and it is the continent of Africa that we must bring back to the fore when we have these discussions.”
Among 300 African tribes of the Limba Cultural Association, the Ibo of Nigeria, the Tutsis and the Ashante of Ghana, at least eight major tribal groups identify themselves as being of Hebraic stock, said Funnye, who believes Jewish scholars are well aware of the African branch of the Jewish family tree.
“Why is it that they have been seemingly not interested at all in swinging the doors of Judaism open to embrace these people?” he asked. “I do not want to venture to say.
“We must see Judaism in the eyes of the prophet who declared that God’s house is a house of prayer for all people, and not be blinded by the [presence] of persons who don’t happen to look like us and sound like us,” Funnye said. “I think that only hurts Judaism.”