On June 24, the International Israelite Board of Rabbis announced that Rabbi Capers Funnye, had “successfully completed the vetting process” toward becoming the “the first Black Chief Rabbi of the twenty-first century.” The statement declared Funnye as the “titular head of a worldwide community of Black Jews that includes the denomination of Black Jews founded by Rabbi W.A. Matthew in Harlem in 1919… [Funnye’s] nomination was unanimous and he is running unopposed,” the statement read.
In an interview with Tablet, Rabbi Baruch A. Yehudah, the Executive Secretary of the International Board of Rabbis, said that Funnye, the Board’s Vice President, was nominated by Rabbi Sholomo ben Levy, who is the son of Rabbi Levi ben Levy—the last person to be named Black Chief Rabbi. He died in 1999 and the position has remained vacant ever since. (According to Yehuda, Rabbi K’Naizadek Yeshurun was nominated in 2007, but he died in February 2008 before he could take the post). Rabbi Funnye, first cousin once removed to First Lady Michelle Obama, is currently the leader of Beth Shalom Bnai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation in Chicago.
“[Funnye’s nomination] is about our community that is involved with the International Israelite Board of Rabbis,” said Yehudah.
Yet naming of a new “Black Chief Rabbi” was a cause of concern for Jews of African or Caribbean descent who adhere to the boundaries of normative Judaism: The announcement of Funnye as the “Black Chief Rabbi” is the latest in a long and increasingly intricate struggle against the appropriation of their Jewish identity. For these Jews, the mainstream Jewish world’s fascination with the Hebrew Israelites creates a distraction away from the very real issues that normative Judaism has with race in its very own pews, perpetuating an oppression in Jewish spaces that there’s a place “over there” for Afro-Caribbean Jewry—where their people are.
Reactions to Funnye’s appointment were decidedly mixed on Facebook. One African-American Conservative Jew expressed confusion:”What is the ‘International Israelite Board of Rabbis’ that is making him the first Black Chief Rabbi?? These people confuse the hell out of me and I don’t understand what [Funnye] is all about either…”
Elsewhere on Facebook, a multiracial Jewish mother, who is also a grandmother, was resigned: “My heart is heavy with the thought that the world will now think that we are now followers of a black nationalist rabbi, further marginalizing and alienating us from mainstream Judaism. It’s a shame. [Funnye] has all of the characteristics of a leader. Dynamic speaker, educated, well connected, personable. But then there’s that Israelite connection. Also, he’s Jewish, sure, but he’s not a Jewish rabbi. He received his ordination from a Hebrew Israelite group.”
Another Facebook user, an African-American man who coverted to Judaism, seethed on a Facebook status thread: “Actual Jews are suffering because of this Israelite crap,” he wrote. “These people aren’t Jewish even by Reform standards but (they) make noise and scream discrimination when they are not accepted by anybody within the Jewish community.”
Yet another, a bi-racial Reform Jew, criticized mainstream Jewish organizations and media, many which continue to cover diversity in Judaism without much depth: “[Hebrew Israelites] actually have the Jewish community in a noose. If they are not acknowledged or don’t receive funding, they can say it’s due to “Jewish” racism. Meanwhile, legitimate organizations that promote diversity and inclusion get scrutinized and don’t receive the level of funding they should for the invaluable work they do for diverse Jews. It’s the mainstream Jewish organizations and media who accept this BS and hold [HIs] as representatives of Jews of color. Why? Because they are so crippled by white liberal guilt and afraid to be labeled ‘racist.’ Stop being so effing PC and seek out the truth!”
The latter point is perhaps one of the largest catalysts of the gulch of antagonism, weariness, and resentment between the adherents of the Hebrew-Israelite religions who now increasingly refer to themselves as “Black Jews,” and the global community of Jews of Afro-Caribbean descent who exist in every facet of mainstream Judaism from secular to ultra-Orthodox. Far from being merely the voice of the man on the street, these frustrations are echoed by Afro-Caribbean Jewish leaders as well.
In an emailed statement, black Jewish rapper Y-Love wrote: “First of all, mazel tov to Rabbi Funnye’s appointment as Chief Rabbi of the International Israelite Board of Rabbis. I think he is a fine individual and will be an asset to any organization he joins. Unfortunately, the International Israelite Board of Rabbis does not speak for the millions of black Jews—myself included—who consider themselves part of a multicultural global Jewish community.”
Jared Jackson, the founder of Jews In ALL Hues, expressed his bewilderment at Funnye being allowed to sit on the Chicago Board of Rabbis given that he is actively clergy in the Hebrew Israelite religion and still claims an Israelite identity. “Even as a Jewish diversity leader,” he said in an interview, “I find this highly puzzling, to say the least.”
One prominent leader on the executive board of a well-known Jewish diversity organization, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said: “While Hebrew Israelites are a problem, there is also the larger issue of black Jewish visibility, which we need to tackle. Black people rarely win at respectability politics and most outsiders will just come away with this conflict being an issue of in-fighting instead of realizing that we’re talking about two different species that happen to look really similar but are nothing alike, like alligators and crocodiles.”
“That having been said, I was hoping to read in Funnye’s platform something about moving the various congregations towards mainstream Judaism. The fact that he’s seemingly only focusing on uniting other Israelites under one banner, but says little else about interaction with normative Judaism besides raising funds from Jewish organizations to finance these Israelite endeavors says a lot, I think. But there’s only so much to be said there before we start veering into some very volatile Uncle Tom, whistle-blowing, ‘I’m one of the good negroes‘ imagery.”
But of all the prickly reactions that have been riled up in the wake of the declaration, perhaps the most balanced one comes from Michelle Stein-Evers, who co-founded the Alliance of Black Jews with Funnye and journalist Robin Washington in 1995.
She said the announcement resonated across all aspects of her identity. As a person who has personally known Funnye for more than two decades, she said she feels happiness. As one of the co-founders of the Alliance of Black Jews, which describes itself as an “advocacy organization of/by Black people who embrace mainstream Judaism, she noted his appointment was likely enabled by the political connections Funnye nurtured with the Hebrew-Israelite community, as well as his professional partnership with the late social researcher and Jewish outreach pioneer Dr. Gary Tobin and Bechol Lashon, the Jewish diversity advocacy organization Tobin founded with his wife, Diane.
But as a Jewish woman of color, her knee-jerk response was: “What on Earth? Who died and left them the arbiters of ‘the black Jew’? I am very much a black Jew and always have been, but [Capers] is not my Rabbi. Much less ‘Chief!’”
“Capers has a unique rabbinic vocation, as far as I have been able to see,” Stein-Evers explains. “He has a congregation who accept and admire his leadership. They love him. The real problem at hand though is that of the organized Hebrew Israelite sect claiming leadership of ‘black Jews’ world over. They can’t. They can only lead themselves.”
But Rabbi Yehudah, the executive secretary of International Board of Rabbis, said, “The Israelite Board of Rabbis is not claiming to have sole oversight of all the black people who are Jewish in the community. When people began to write about us they began to use the “Black Jews of Harlem” (name). This is nomenclature that we originally did not put in ourselves. For me, historically, it’s all correct. We are Hebrews, we are Israelites. There was a time in history when we were were referred to as Yehudim… Rabbi Wentworth A. Matthew did not call them “Black Jews.” We were simply Hebrew Israelites.”
“No one is claiming that every person of color is part of the International Israelite Board of Rabbis pray-view. We dont cover every black person who is also Jewish.”
And yet, the website of the International Israelite Board of Rabbis is www.blackjews.org. The history webpage for Rabbi Funnye’s synagogue in Chicago, an affiliate congregation of the IIBR, states that his congregation “embraces” its ideals: “the brotherhood of all people who worship the G-D of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob without regard to tradition or terminology (for example: Black Jews’ Hebrews, Israelites, Jews, etc.).”
It continues: “However, when among us, visitors are obliged to respect the customs and traditions followed by members… Our particular religious practices were formulated from several sources by our late Honorable Chief Rabbi Wentworth A. Matthew. He was one of the progenitors of our faith, formally called “Black Jews.”
Hebrew-Israelites fall under a large umbrella, ranging from the infamously militant, sometimes Messianic, antagonists found in Times Square, to those whose practices are nearly indistinguishable from “traditional” or even “Orthodox” Judaism. However, all of the branches of the Hebrew Israelite religion hold fast to the core tenets of pride in the chosenness of being black as being a starting point to Judaism rather than an enhancement of it, and the belief that the laws of Jewish identity stipulated either in halacha or those changes by the Reform movement do not apply to them.
The HI movement did not evolve out of a vacuum, however, being fueled in part to fulfill a need for a group of people of color who were not always embraced by “normative” Jews. The Israelite theology granted access to the benefits of Jewish observance and a self-identification with a direct path to the Master of the Universe. But whereas normative Judaism sees self-identification as a start, not an end, Hebrew Israelite theology—and the politics of their time—declare, “That’s enough.”
“Some of us understand that Jewishness is ultimately stronger than color,” Stein-Evers said. “Even blackness. But Hebrew Israelites remain shaped by the withdrawal from anything touched by ‘normative’ Jews, and cling to the idea that the halachic laws for becoming recognized as members of the Jewish people don’t apply to them. And there is the difference between us.”
“I’m glad the HI exist for their own,” Stein-Evers admits. “But they can call themselves—and Capers—the representatives of black Jews the world over as long as they like, but it won’t be true. We Jews are instructed by Talmud to acquire a teacher—a rabbi—and find a friend. For some, they have found their Rabbi, Capers. I hope we all can find the strength we need to do both, but not under the aegis of Hebrew Israelites.”
Rabbi Funnye did not respond to Tablet’s requests for comments.
MaNishtana is the pseudonym of Shais Rishon, an Orthodox African-American Jewish writer, speaker, rabbi, and author of Thoughts From A Unicorn. His latest book is Ariel Samson, Freelance Rabbi.