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Rabbi Capers Funnye Reads from the Torah
Black and Jewish: Rabbi has roots in Georgetown
By Idelle Kerzner
Published: January 11, 2009
Approximately 200 years ago, 70 miles from Savannah, Ga., on a small island known as St. Simons, 13 Ibo men refused to live as slaves. To avoid bondage, they linked arms and threw themselves into the waves below.
Referred to as Ibo Landing, local legend dictates that fisherman will not even approach the site as the haunting voices of the martyrs can still be heard.
In August 2002, Nigerians living all over the world from Ibo ancestry came to this sacred spot to honor these souls who could only find freedom in death. Amongst the clan of Nigerian brothers, stood Rabbi Capers Funnye from Georgetown. With a kippah, or head covering, upon his head, he offered prayers.
"The Ruach Kodesh (Holy Spirit) overwhelmed me," said Funnye, as he prayed for the souls of his martyred brothers in both Ibo and Hebrew.
Funnye, 56, is an African-American Jewish spiritual leader of Beth Shalom Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation of Chicago. The name, which translates to "the house of peace for the children of the Ancient Ethiopian Hebrew," proclaims the richness of Funnye's heritage.
His journey began in Georgetown, as he attended Howard High School from 1967 to 1970. He lived with his aunt, Dorothy Robinson, who still lives in Georgetown, and his late uncle, Thomas Robinson.
Funnye says living in Georgetown during such a transitional period was difficult. During the tumultuous 1960s he began to search for awareness of self.
"There was a great deal of prejudice there," Funnye said. "Blacks were not allowed to sit with whites. Many times I would go where I was not supposed to go -- this is how I responded to what was going on."
Living with this prejudice on a daily basis impacted Funnye's spirit greatly. However, his aunt and uncle gave him the guidance to survive.
"The enormous values of living with my uncle and his wife, especially when segregation was institutionalized, showed me the importance of family and community," Funnye said.
Ibo people are of Hebrew stock practicing similar customs and traditions. The Ibos, like the Hebrews, circumcise their males on the eighth day after birth and refuse to eat pork or shellfish, according to Funnye.
He speaks of Moses and how he married Zipporah -- a dark skin Midianite. Funnye talks of Africa's proximity to Israel and proclaims that Abraham, the father of Judaism, proudly wore a dark complexion.
Like many in his 220-member congregation, Funnye found Christianity troublesome to his spirit. As a child growing up in South Carolina, his family attended the African Methodist Episcopal church. Gazing at the Messianic pictures of a white-faced Jesus, he would wonder why.
"Here is a savior with a white face," he remembers thinking. "If these are the same people in charge of Heaven that have been in charge of Earth, I don't want to go."
Not conversion, reversion
He also believes that many of the slaves taken to America were of Hebraic stock and were forced to practice Christianity. Funnye claims, "Why should I practice a faith that was forced upon me -- this was not our religion of choice."
When asked about his conversion, the Rabbi, believing his heart always belonged to Judaism replies, "I did not have a conversion. I had a reversion. I have come home."
Rabbi Funnye admits that living in America as a minority twice over is difficult, but he would have it no other way. Once, a visitor to his synagogue implied that the Rabbi was twice cursed because of his color and religion. However, when Funnye thinks about his rich African ancestry intertwined with the souls of Moses and Abraham and replies, "I am not twice cursed. I am twice blessed."
Filled with purpose, Funnye sees himself as a bridge between the black and Jewish communities and has met with leaders like Farrakhan hoping to create a line of communication and understanding. In the 1960s, when Martin Luther King Jr. marched through Marquette Park, it was Funnye's edifice, which was owned by another Jewish congregation, that would serve as sanctuary to King in case of mob attack.
Gary, Ind., resident Dan Ben Yehuda, who carries the English name of Bruce Carey, attends Funnye's congregation. A practicing Jew, he keeps strict Jewish dietary laws that include not mixing meat with milk. For Carey, Sabbath begins at sundown on Friday night and ends at sundown on Saturday.
Since Northwest Indiana has very few white Jews living a life as ritually observant as Carey, he is quite alone. Among his black comrades steeped in traditions of Christianity, Carey faces the dilemma of being an "outsider" in that arena as well.
Consequently, with little acceptance on both sides, Carey feels blessed to have someone like Funnye to turn to for support.
"Rabbi Funnye is a learned man," Carey said. "Just knowing that he is a man of faith and belief gives you confidence."
Come and learn
The Beth Shalom family invites all -- Jew and Gentile alike -- to come and learn. They have a Hebrew school for children, adult classes, family activities and an active brotherhood and sisterhood.
The congregation began in 1915 with the establishment of the Ethiopian Hebrew Association. It then merged with Beth Shalom (House of Peace) Hebrew Congregation in 1984 and 10 years later formed an alliance with another congregation called B'nai Zaken (House of the Ancient).
The movement began with Gabriel Prosser, one of the movement's founders began organizing slaves on plantations and teaching that they are the children of Israel and would be delivered from suffering. The congregation's commitment of "Keeping the faith from generation to generation" is evident by its adherence to the hundreds of commandments found in the Five Books of Moses, known as the Torah.
Eleven-year-old Yitzhak Cummings attends Beth Shalom's School and lives much of his life according to the Laws of Moses. One might think adhering to numerous codes would be difficult. However, Cummings says he serves the Almighty with joy.
"One day I will become a rabbi," he announced proudly. When asked what would happen if he does not become a rabbi he replied, "If I was not a Rabbi, I would not be happy."
Presently, the congregation is helping many tribes in Africa believed to be of Jewish origin through donations of educational material and spiritual guidance. Funnye believes his house of worship continues to stay strong of spirit because of its cultural diversity.
"Many people are on a spiritual journey and looking for spiritual alternatives," Funnye said. "I want the doors of this synagogue to swing out to them and to welcome them in."
The synagogue is located at 6601 South Kedzie Ave., Chicago. For more information call 1-773-476-2924, or visit the Web site at www.bethshalombz.org.
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