Rabbi Funnye: the ‘first black chief rabbi’

Rabbi Funnye in action. Credit: YouTube.

Rabbi Capers Funnye Jr. is set to be the first “black chief rabbi” of the 21st century.

The International Israelite Board of Rabbis, a US-based umbrella body for black Jewry, announced that Funnye will serve as the “titular head of a worldwide community of Black Jews“. That movement includes the denomination of Black Jews founded by Rabbi W.A. Matthew in Harlem in 1919.

Other affiliated black Jewish groups include the Lemba of South Africa, the Abayudaya of Uganda, and communities in Nigeria.

A key part of Funnye’s work as Chief Rabbi is to build relationships with Ethiopian Jews in Israel. Funnye has met with Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu to lobby for greater acceptance of black Jews.

Funnye converted to Judaism as an adult. But in some circles, there is a shock that a rabbi is black. It is an image he is keen to change.

“We have African-American Jews, African Jews, Filipino Jews, Mexican Jews, white Jews and biracial Jews. It is really what the Jewish people, in fact, have always looked like. … We have to promote that Jews have always been a global people,” said Funnye in a Chicago Tribune interview.

His rabbinical career began in 1985; in 2009, Funnye spoke at a white, mainstream New York synagogue. For years, he has attempted to argue the case that Black Jews belong in mainstream Judaism, a plea that for many years, fell on deaf ears.

So what brought Funnye to Judaism? During his studies at Harvard in the 1970s, Black nationalism, Afrocentrism and cultural separatism were hot topics. He rejected Christianity due to a sense that slave masters imposed the religion.

Instead, the awakening came from the idea that Africans were the true descendants of Biblical Hebrews, and Jesus was black.

It is a scepticism that’s followed Funnye since 1997 when he became the first and only black rabbi to join the Chicago Board of Rabbis. Rabbi Funnye belongs to the Ethiopian Hebrew movement is one of a select few black Jewish movements under the Israelite umbrella. But they remain outside the mainstream Jewish community due to their lack of traditional Jewish conversion.

For Rabbi Funnye, dialogue is crucial. His new position is due to start in the autumn.