Black Rabbi Shares Story Of Conversion, Unity Rabbi Capers C. Funnye grew up Methodist, but he converted to Judaism and is now a Rabbi. Funnye now leads an Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation in Chicago, one of the largest Black synagogues in America (and he's also First Lady Michelle Obama's cousin).
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Black Rabbi Shares Story Of Conversion, Unity

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Black Rabbi Shares Story Of Conversion, Unity

Black Rabbi Shares Story Of Conversion, Unity

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TELL ME MORE: basketball meets politics in the Barbershop. But first, our regular Faith Matters conversation. That's the part of the program where we talk about matters of faith and spirituality.

Jews around the world are celebrating Passover. The holiday commemorates the exodus from slavery in Egypt to freedom, and President Obama - in what is believed to be a first for a sitting president - hosted a Seder, a special Passover dinner at the White House. Back in Chicago, Rabbi Capers Funnye has been leading Passover services at his synagogue. He's the chief rabbi at the Beth Shalom B'nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation. It's one of the largest congregations of Jews of African descent in the country.

Rabbi Funnye also happens to be the first lady's cousin. He's with us now, and we hope he will tell us more about his faith journey at this special time of year. Rabbi, welcome. Thank you for joining us.

CAPERS C: Thank you so very much for inviting me.

: Rabbi, you were born in South Carolina, raised on the south side of Chicago, predominantly African-American Christian community. How did you come to realize that Judaism was the path you wanted to pursue? Was it like that you saw it on the road to Damascus in reverse?

FUNNYE: Not really. The - my pursuit and my move towards the Jewish faith simply came from my capacity to question and just always looking around having so many questions about the church, and I wanted more. And I found that in the Jewish faith.

: Was there a particular person who was critical to your spiritual journey?

FUNNYE: The person most critical to my spiritual journey was my teacher and mentor Rabbi Levi Ben Levy, who was just a wonderful individual, so warm and so caring. And when I first met him, he said, you know, this way of life - Judaism is a way of life. It is what we apply to our lives every day in how we eat and how we pray. But not only is it a way of life, life must have with it a passion that you bring to it. And so this is what we want you to apply to your faith.

And so for me, Judaism has allowed me to be a very spiritual person, but at the same time, a very questioning person, to always have the capacity to enter into a dialogue with the creator - with Hashem, with God - as opposed to an ontological conversation but a dialogical conversation where you read in the Bible, there is this questioning between Abraham and God, between Moses and God, between all of the biblical figures, they are always in dialogue with God.

And sometimes in my particular faith, it was simply told, well, you have to simply believe, and to believe without necessarily questioning. And how do we learn, how do we grow without the capacity to question?

: As you pursued your interest in Judaism, how did your friends and family respond? Did you feel that there was a moving apart from them? Was that hard?

FUNNYE: The moving apart was a little difficult until my mom and other brothers and sisters realized that I was not losing religion. As a matter of fact, I was somewhat growing in my religious understanding. And as they grew to appreciate the fact that this was - I was becoming a more religious person, my mom was extremely proud of the fact that I was leading a congregation, had become of Rabbi, had studied Judaism. She was very, very proud. And before she passed I would speak at her church.

She always wanted her pastor to invite me to have some words on a Sunday morning, because I also believe very strongly that we have to have interfaith dialogue between the different faiths, and we need ecumenical services as well.

: What about on the other side of it? You're a member of the Hebrew Israelite movement. That's never been fully embraced to this point by - I don't know if you want to use the word mainstream - you know, more European- originated Jewish communities. What has that been like on the other side of the question? Have you felt embraced by your - by the rest of the Jewish community?

FUNNYE: Well, the - I look at that the term Jewish community, I use as all inclusive of both individuals who define themselves as Hebrew Israelites, as well as my co-religion that's in the mainstream Jewish community. There are those in the Hebrews lay community that unfortunately, in their thinking, they viewed things through a spectrum of separatism. And that is not based upon the Bible as I understand it. The Bible does not separate humanity. The Bible should - brings humanity together.

The Bible brings humanity together with understanding. The Bible brings humanity together with letting people understand and worship God in the capacity that they feel within their inner being. And as Jews, we have no problem with where other people are and their religious faith and understandings and beliefs and practices.

: As I understand it, part of the issue comes down to a doctrine of originality. Do I have that right, that there are some people within the Hebrew Israelite movement believe that they are the three descendants of Israel, but not others? Is that right?

FUNNYE: That is very true, and both sides are wrong. If, in fact, that is the feeling on the defiant side of many people in the broader Jewish community, that's a false assumption, and just as it is a false assumption on the part of the Hebrew Israelites who want to make everything and all Jews and everybody original people of African descent - that, too, is a misnomer. We just read on the first day of Passover, the first day of unleavened bread yesterday in our services that there was a mixed multitude that came up out of Egypt with Moses. We don't know - this multitude, I would posit, had people of every ethnicity, possibly, that was a part of this group that became the Jewish people when they received the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai.

So the idea of a mixture of peoples has always been present in the Bible, and it's not about race. It's about faith. It's about building a relationship of an individual with their creator. And that is - it doesn't matter what religious community they are a part of. And we cannot take color and make color the basis of a religious faith theology.

: You underwent two conversions, as I understand it. You went in, and your initial conversion to the faith. But then in 1985, I think it was, you went to - underwent a second certified, by a conservative rabbinical court. Why was this important to you?

FUNNYE: It was important because the more I studied Jewish law, which is called Halacha, a Mikvah has to have particular requirements, and the requirements that are pointed out in Jewish law. My first conversion did not meet those standards. And standards are those things that you have, you know, if you're going to operate at a least level of proficiency, when you have to meet a basic standard. And I wanted myself and my family and members of my congregation who have joined to meet a standard that is based upon Jewish law that all would understand that this is what the Halacha, the Jewish law says how one comes into the Jewish peoplehood.

And so I wanted to get in or be a part of the Jewish peoplehood from a sense of everyone understanding that this is the standard that was applied and that we fulfilled those particular standards.

: You know, you know I was thinking about is the fact that - the fact that we even have such thing as congregations that we even describe as African- American congregations is, from a faith perspective, wrong. I mean, there should be a sense of unity and oneness, wouldn't you agree within (unintelligible)?

FUNNYE: I absolutely...

: So do you envision a time when there won't be such things as an African-American congregation, or a whatever-ethnic congregation? Do you think that will happen?

FUNNYE: I hope and pray that it does. Beth Shalom is a very diverse congregation. We have Jews from the white Jewish community that are part of and members of Beth Shalom. Our congregation has (unintelligible), Jews - returning Jews from Mexico whose families were, through the Inquisition, were forced into Christianity. So we have Mexican-Americans. We have (unintelligible) Jewish members. We have African-Americans. We have Africans. And so, yes, I hope and I pray for a time that Judaism is not defined as black Jew, Orthodox Jew, conservative Jew, but Judaism, and that even in the Christian community, that there is a much broader interflow of people understanding that our faith cannot be based upon a ethnic or racial identity, but on our spiritual oneness, our spiritual meanings and not our racial meaning.

: Well, speaking of oneness, I understand that President Obama hosted a Seder at the White House this week. We believe that this is the first time a sitting president has attended and hosted a Seder. Did you have something to do with that decision? As I mentioned, you're Michelle Obama's first cousin, once removed.

FUNNYE: I don't think so. I think that from what I understand, that this is just something that the president wanted to do for his staff members. Passover is a family time, and throughout the Jewish world, the Seder is one of those family events where family comes together.

And I believe that probably since many of his staff were not able to get away to their families to celebrate, that maybe the president wanted to say, you know, let us open up, and let us allow our staff members that are here with us to be family together as Jews, and let them have their Seder. So I thought it was a wonderful idea.

: Well, want to keep our conversation in the realm of the spiritual, but I did want to ask you about the fact that the president has said he wants to try to reach out across the faith continuum and try to bring groups together who have often been at odds over issues, political issues, moral values questions, as least as they define them. How do you think he's doing in that regard?

FUNNYE: I think he's reaching, and I would encourage him to continue, despite all of the opposition. I think that the only way we're going to move these conversations forward is with meaningful, honest dialogue, and so I would certainly encourage the president to maintain his path of outreach to communities who are maybe Christian, but far more to - let us say - conservative in their views than the president might be. So I hope that he - I'm encouraging him to continue.

: And what's your message for Passover?

FUNNYE: That this is a time that we should be welcoming. This is the time of liberation for the Jewish people, of freedom. We celebrate freedom just not for the Jewish community, but we celebrate freedom for every community.

In the Seder, we say all who are hungry, come let them eat. All who need protection, come into our midst and partake of this Seder service. So it is an outreach, indeed, that the Passover Seder seeks to imbue within the hearts of the Jews that we might reach out to others, others who were oppressed, others who had situations that were not very favorable to be that shoulder, to be a listening ear in various communities. And so that - my Passover message is that we - it is through faith that the children of Israel came forth out of Egypt, and in faith - faith is always demonstrated through the deeds that follow what we say we believe in.

: All right. Rabbi, we need to leave it there. Capers Funnye is chief rabbi of the Beth Shalom B'nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation. It's one of the largest congregations of Jews of African descent in the country. It's in Chicago. Rabbi, thank you so much for joining us, and shabbat shalom.

FUNNYE: Shabbat shalom. Thank you so very much now.

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