Michelle Obamas cousin the rabbi works to bring Jews of Africa back to faith

Rabbi Capers Funnye often travels overseas to work with Jewish congregations in distant lands. Usually that means Nigeria, Ghana and Cameroon.

Counterintuitive as it may be, sub–Saharan Africa boasts several fledgling Jewish communities. And outside of South Africa, hardly any of them include transplanted white Europeans.

Funnye has gotten a lot of ink lately, most notably with a lengthy April profile in the New York Times, because he happens to be Michelle Obama’s first cousin once removed, and an intimate with the first family.

But the rabbi of Chicago’s Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation would rather be known for his work with the Pan-African Jewish Alliance, which helps African Jews merge with the mainstream Jewish community.

In Nigeria alone, the rabbi works with 30 congregations, representing up to 15,000 members.

He was in San Francisco earlier this week to discuss his experiences at a roundtable discussion titled “The Jews of Africa,” as well as attend a four-day conference to talk about the role of multiethnic Jews in shaping global Jewish life. Both events were sponsored by Be’chol Lashon.

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Rabbi Capers. C. Funnye stands on the bimah at his Chicago synagogue in September 2008. photo/ap/m. spencer green

Funnye, 57, says the roundtable’s agenda was “to talk about the expansion, the spread of Judaism, on the continent of Africa and in the African consciousness, and how all over the continent several communities are looking to become part and parcel of the broader Jewish community.”

Some of those communities, such as the Abayudaya of Uganda, converted to Judaism relatively recently. Others, like the Lemba of South Africa, trace their ancestry back to the ancient Hebrews, or have discovered familial ties to the Jewish people, not unlike the Conversos, or “hidden Jews,” of Spain.

Whatever the case, Funnye wants to lead all of them back to the faith of their fathers.

“I have said to those communities, we have to have a halachic return of your people to the Jewish faith,” he says. “So we must study rabbinic Judaism, apply it in our lives, then go through all of the prerequisites of halachah [Jewish law] to become part of the Jewish people.”

Funnye became a member of the tribe years ago. Raised Christian in Chicago, he was drawn to an African American Jewish sect in the early 1970s. Though the sect would not have been considered halachically Jewish, Funnye’s devotion to Judaism deepened, and eventually he underwent a conversion with a Conservative beit din (rabbinical court).

He has been an ordained rabbi since 1985.

He has served on the Chicago Board of Rabbis and worked closely with Be’chol Lashon, an S.F.-based organization that seeks to strengthen ethnically diverse Jewish communities around the world, as well as promote conversion. He is also the senior research associate for the S.F.-based Institute of Jewish and Community Research.

Funnye’s profile spiked dramatically as Barack Obama’s star began to rise. Being a Jewish cousin to the first lady made him the new president’s de facto rabbi. He believes those who worry that Obama’s Mideast policy might prove disadvantageous to Israel should chill out.

“I feel he is absolutely and unequivocally in full support of the state of Israel,” Funnye says. “From what I have read and seen, [the president] is trying his utmost to engage every element of the world community — and that is Muslim, Jewish, Christian and all others. We cannot accomplish peace without dialogue. It is impossible.”

As for the Passover seder held at the White House last month, Funnye couldn’t make it, though he heard the president thoroughly enjoyed it. “It showed his openness to all religious faith communities,” he adds, “which is exemplified in his outreach.”

Apparently, this was not the first seder for Team Obama.

“During Passover ’08, there was a seder,” Funnye says. “And I heard that at the end of the seder they said, ‘Next year in Washington.’”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a J. staff writer. He retired as news editor in 2020. Dan can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.