The Israelites walked slowly, chanting in Hebrew and wrapped in loose white robes. A reverential silence spread across the crowd as one figure emerged above the rest. Hundreds had gathered to witness a sacred moment. “I came so that my children’s children would remember this day,” said one Israelite. “Hallelujah,” called another.
It was a scene out of the Torah: after years of uncertainty a new leader was being installed.
But these Israelites, unlike their biblical namesakes, had not come from scattered desert encampments, but from Georgia, New York, California, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Delaware. They were gathered not on a craggy mountain overlooking the valleys of the Holy Land, but deep in the Southside of Chicago.
And their new leader? South Carolina-born African American rabbi, Chief Rabbi Capers C. Funnye Jr.
Funnye has already made headlines. He’s the cousin of Michelle Obama and the first African American to join the Chicago Board of Rabbis. He has spent his career redrawing racial and religious boundaries. In sermons Funnye quotes from Malcolm X, Marcus Mosiah Garvey and old spirituals, but also Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Rabbi Louis Jacobs and the Talmud.
“My blackness and my Jewishness, they synthesize,” said Funnye on the day of his installation as chief rabbi last weekend. His office was lined with weathered books on Judaism; a map of Africa hung on the wall. “I’m not in anybody’s box. We need this community recognized by the Jewish people. And I am their spokesperson.”
The Hebrew-Israelites, whose practice of Judaism draws from early black nationalism and its message of empowerment, have lived for nearly a century on the fringes of the Jewish world. There have only been two other chief rabbis in this group’s history; the last died in 1999.
Since then, “something hasn’t been right, something hasn’t been in the correct order,” said Rabbi Sholomo Ben Levy, president of the board. “Today we are able to get back in order.”
The new chief rabbi of the International Israelite Board of Rabbis, the main rabbinical body in the Israelite world, wants to both bring unity to the group and reach out.
“We have to build bridges,” said Funnye, “amongst ourselves and to other communities.”
Funnye was nominated as chief rabbi last fall. Earlier this year, he released his vision plan and spoke about his platform in a series of public meetings. A specially-formed electorate body made up of rabbis representing their communities, in this country and abroad, took a vote at the beginning of the month.
The results came in on Oct. 4. It was unanimous.
And finally, following Sabbath services at Funnye’s home congregation, Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation in Chicago, a chief rabbi was installed.
“The International Israelite Board of Rabbis,” Levy said during the ceremony, “have elected and elevated our brother Rabbi Capers Funnye to the highest honorable office of chief rabbi to the Israelite congregations of the United States, the Caribbean, Africa and around the world under our auspices.”
The congregation’s choir, rivaling any gospel group, sang in a mixture of Hebrew and English; the crowd was dressed in its finest: colored kufis, knit skullcaps, dashikis and white prayer shawls.
“My father devoted his life to a movement,” said Rabbi Shalem Knaizadek Yeshurun, whose father was an early Israelite rabbi in Brooklyn. “Now we can show to the world: we’re not going to let that legacy die. We have a chief rabbi now, we talk for ourselves.”
A struggle to be accepted by the mainstream
This branch of Israelites traces its history back to Harlem where, in 1919, a Caribbean-born man named Rabbi Wentworth Arthur Matthew founded one of the county’s first black synagogues, the Commandment Keepers Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation.
A charismatic cleric from St. Kitts, Matthew taught that African Americans had ancient connections with the biblical Israelites and that they should leave Christianity and return to Judaism. New members went through a ritual process of return, Levy said, which they viewed as comparable to conversion.
The synagogue became the center of a movement and branches spread to other parts of the country and abroad.
Matthew wasn’t only interested in reaching out to black Americans. He also sought connection with mainstream Jews and wanted his growing community to be accepted. Matthew applied to join the New York Board of Rabbis (twice), but was turned down because he was ordained by an earlier Israelite teacher, not from a recognized school. One early critic dismissed the community as having “nothing to do with Judaism.”
Things got slightly better in the next decades. But not by much.
The ’60s and early ’70s saw failed attempts to usher the Israelites into the mainstream, spearheaded by (largely white) Jewish liberals who ultimately pushed for conversion instead of accepting the Israelites’ claims to the religion, and history of practice, at face value.
To many Israelites, then and now, the politics of conversion is a fraught topic, said Rabbi Baruch A. Yehudah, executive secretary of the Israelite board and second-generation Israelite. “I’m not going to allow you to tell me who I can be or can’t be. I was born like this. My knees have bowed to no other God. I’m not asking for anyone’s permission.”
Starting in the late ’70s, the second chief rabbi, Rabbi Levi Ben Levy, re-vamped both the Israelite rabbinical board and the rabbinical college. Independent of the Jewish world, Israelite groups blossomed across the country.
There are some groups who identify as Israelites but embrace a more separatist message. The board, however, recognizes all practitioners of Judaism, regardless of their “race, tradition, or terminology.”
Funnye studied at the Israelite rabbinical academy but also decided to enroll in Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership in Chicago. And, after consulting his Israelite rabbi, Funnye also went through a conversion in a Conservative rabbinical court.
“I know who I am,” said Funnye, recalling his thought process and decision to go through a conversion. “I just want you to be comfortable, too.”
Unlike some of his predecessors, Funnye said, he didn’t feel like the conversion took anything away from his being an Israelite. It would also open doors.
“I am an Israelite and a Jew,” Funnye said. “We’re not trying to emulate or pattern ourselves after any Jewish community. We are our own community.”
Today, a dozen U.S. congregations are associated with the board, where membership in each synagogue ranges from under 75 to hundreds.
Funnye’s vision is expansive. He looks to the Caribbean, South America and Africa. Already the board has ties with synagogues in Barbados, Uganda, Ghana, and over thirty in Nigeria. Funnye wants to build more, also reaching out to the Lemba Jews of South Africa.
New chief rabbi helps Israelites find their place
During his 30 years of leadership in Chicago, Funnye’s synagogue in Chicago emerged as one of the most popular Israelite congregations in the country. He was accepted on the Chicago Board of Rabbis (making him the first Israelite to sit on any city board) and is also board president at the city’s Jewish Council of Urban Affairs.
Rabbi Debra Newman Kamin, spiritual leader of Am Yisrael, a Conservative synagogue in Chicago, has watched Rabbi Funnye’s steady rise as a leader. Twenty five years ago, Rabbi Kamin says, his congregation was a “mystery to Chicago Jewry.” Now Rabbi Kamin regularly visits his synagogue with her congregants. “He has worked hard to be part of the Jewish community.”
Michael B. Oren, former Israeli ambassador to the U.S. and close friend of Funnye’s, flew in for the weekend. “You are part of the Jewish people,” said Oren, speaking to a crowd of Israelites. “You are a part of the nation state. And we are proud and delighted to have you.”
On a drizzling afternoon in Chicago, the board presented Funnye with a signed scroll, giving him his new authority as chief. The sun, struggling to break through all morning, finally did. The sanctuary was bathed in light.
Would the community embrace Funnye’s desire to work with wider Jewry? Could they leave past divisions behind? And would wider Jewry accept the Israelites? There was a group prayer on Funnye’s behalf. And, for a moment which seemed to stretch on, Funnye stood silently. Children crowded to the front, the crowd watched expectantly. The size of his mandate came to him, he explained later, and he prayed for guidance.
“I accepted the position because many of my elders and teachers have passed,” said Funnye. “Now, when I go anywhere, they will be with me. I will be speaking on behalf of them and their descendants.”