19 March 2008

Chicago: Another face of Judaism

There are many faces to Judaism and these faces most certainly impact Jewish genealogy - both now and in the future. We come from around the world, and among us are found both ancient lineages and new additions to the Jewish family tree.

Jewish congregations around the world have Asian, Hispanic and black members who - through family history, conversion or adoption - are members of the tribe.

The New York Times just carried a story (and a multimedia slide show) about the Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation, headed by Rabbi Capers C. Funnye [fun-AY] Jr, who says “I am a Jew and that breaks through all color and ethnic barriers.” The congregation occupies a former Ashkenazi synagogue in Marquette Park.

Founded in 1918 as the Ethiopian Hebrew Settlement Workers Association by Rabbi Horace Hasan from Bombay, its members include Hispanics, African-Americans and whites who were born Jews, former Christians and Muslims. The congregation does not seek out converts, according to traditional Jewish law, and members must study for a year before converting (including circumcision and mikvah).

The service is between Conservative and Modern Orthodox with African-American elements. Men and women sit separately; liturgy is read in English and Hebrew and drum beats accompany spirituals sung by the chorus.

Funnye serves on the Chicago Board of Rabbis, the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs and the American Jewish Congress of the Midwest. In addition, he is active in the Institute for Jewish and Community Research, focusing on reaching out to other communities of black Jews around the world.

CHICAGO — Having grown up in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Capers C. Funnye Jr. was encouraged by his pastor to follow in his footsteps. Instead, he became a rabbi.

His congregation on the Far Southwest Side of Chicago is predominantly black, and while services include prayers and biblical passages in Hebrew, the worshipers sometimes break into song, swaying back and forth like a gospel choir.

As the first African-American member of the Chicago Board of Rabbis and of numerous mainstream Jewish organizations, Rabbi Funnye (pronounced fun-AY) is on a mission to bridge racial and religious divisions by encouraging Chicago’s wider Jewish community to embrace his followers — the more than 200 members of Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation.

According to Gary Tobin who heads the Institute for Jewish and Community Research, there are no firm national statistics on the number of African-American Jews.

Usually referred to as Israelites or Hebrews, they have historically been seen to stand apart in theology and observance from the nation’s approximately 5.3 million Jews, mainly of Ashkenazi, or European, ancestry, and have largely been ignored by the broader Jewish community. Rabbi Funnye hopes to change that by speaking about his congregation at synagogues throughout Chicago and across the country.

“I believe that people cannot know you unless you make yourself known,” he said. “The only way to do that is to step outside and not fear rejection.”

The rabbi's office features a 1930s black-and-white photo of members of an African-American congregation. The men wear prayer shawls and look out at an opened Torah scroll. “We’re not going anywhere,” said Rabbi Funnye, smiling confidently, “I’m going to reach out until you reach back.”

Read the complete story here.

For more on the congregation and its history, click here.

The 28th IAJGS International Conference on Jewish Genealogy encourages attendees to arrive early for the conference (which begins on Sunday morning August 17 and is even offering (for a fee) Friday Shabbat and Saturday dinners. Tracing the Tribe suggests that the conference committee contact Beth Shalom and arrange for interested conference-goers to attend the August 16th Shabbat morning services.

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