(JNi.media) Funnye Capers, first cousin of First Lady Michelle Obama, has been named as the “titular head of the worldwide community of black Jews.”
Funnye (pronounced Fun-Nay) is the spiritual leader of the Beth Shalom Bnai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew congregation in Chicago and the only black rabbi on the Chicago Board of Rabbis.
Rabbi Capers received his ordination from the Israelite Rabbinical Academy of New York. Raised in the African Methodist Episcopal church, Funnye Capers became involved in civil rights and black nationalism while studying at Howard University. Under the guidance of Rabbi Robert Devine, the leader of the House of Israel Congregation in Chicago, he accepted Devine’s teachings that Africans were descended from Biblical Hebrews and that Jesus was the Messiah and he was black.
Funnye Capers eventually rejected the Christian elements of the movement, and learned with Rabbi Levi Ben Levy in Brooklyn, who embraced the concept of African originalism, but whose approach to observance and belief were more in line with mainstream Judaism.
In 1985, Funnye Capers converted to Judaism at a Conservative Beit Din, but has told his followers that his decision to convert does not imply his followers need to follow suit. Rabbi Levy also ordained Rabbi Funnye Capers as a rabbi, although no mainstream denomination has accepted the title, or Levy’s right to confer it.
The issue mainstream Jewish movements have with the Black Israelites, distinct from race, is that they do not recognize their conversions, which, in some cases, involve similar rituals as mainstream conversions, such as immersion in a ritual bath and circumcision for males. Where they fall short is the part 12th century scholar Maimonides considers paramount: acceptance of the yoke of Jewish halacha and of the sages.
Funnye Capers said of the First Lady, Michelle Obama, “Our families were very close. All through my childhood, our families were in and out of each others’ houses celebrating holidays together, that kind of thing.”
Just as President Obama has been able to stimulate dialogue on race, given his role as President, Funnye Capers says he plans to use his title to create awareness and understanding about race in the Jewish world. He has already met with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and has discussed with him issues relating to the Ethiopian community in Israel.
Rabbi Capers told the Chicago Tribune, “Unfortunately, by and large, when you see any imagery of Jews in the United States, very seldom do you see members of my community … we have to promote that Jews have always been a global people.”
Chicago has been the backdrop to black/Jewish conflict, which reached a tense point in 1984 when Democratic Presidential candidate Rev. Jesse Jackson referred to New York City as “Hymietown.” Although Rev. Jackson apologized for the comment, it deepened the rift between the communities.
Another Chicago black pastor, Jeremiah Wright, who used to minister to the Obama family, in 2008 blamed “them Jews” of keeping him and Barack Obama apart. He also suggested that “The Jewish vote, the A-I-P-A-C vote” was controlling Obama.
Jane Ramsey, then-executive director for the council of Jewish affairs, welcomed the contribution by Rabbi Capers in engaging the African American community: “He’s deeply religious and deeply devoted to Judaism and also deeply devoted to creating jobs and housing and addressing racism and anti-Semitism,” she said.