04 September 2008

Obama: A rabbi in the family

Tracing the Tribe does not usually comment on political matters, but this was just too good to pass up - and it does connect to Jewish genealogy.

While attending the Chicago 2008 international Jewish genealogy conference, several conference-goers attended Shabbat services at Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation in southwest Chicago, headed by Rabbi Capers Funnye. It was inspiring and I recommend it to other Chicago visitors.

A story by Anthony Weiss in The Forward is headlined:
"Michelle Obama Has a Rabbi in Her Family
Capers Funnye, Leading Black Israelite, Is Aspiring First Lady’s Cousin."

While Barack Obama has struggled to capture the Jewish vote, it turns out that one of his wife’s cousins is the country’s most prominent black rabbi — a fact that has gone largely unnoticed.

Michelle Obama, wife of the Democratic presidential nominee, and Rabbi Capers Funnye, spiritual leader of a mostly black synagogue on Chicago’s South Side, are first cousins once removed. Funnye’s mother, Verdelle Robinson Funnye (born Verdelle Robinson) and Michelle Obama’s paternal grandfather, Frasier Robinson Jr., were brother and sister.

Funnye (pronounced fuh-NAY) is chief rabbi at the Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation in southwest Chicago. He is well-known in Jewish circles for acting as a bridge between mainstream Jewry and the much smaller, and largely separate, world of black Jewish congregations, sometimes known as black Hebrews or Israelites. He has often urged the larger Jewish community to be more accepting of Jews who are not white.

Funnye’s famous relative gives an unexpected twist to the much-analyzed relationship between Barack Obama and Jews in this presidential campaign. On the one hand, Jewish political organizers, voters and donors played an essential role in Obama’s rise to power in Chicago, including some of the city’s wealthiest and most prominent families. But the Illinois senator has struggled to overcome suspicions in some parts of the Jewish community, including skepticism about his stance on Israel and discredited but persistent rumors that he is secretly a Muslim.

Funnye, who described himself as an independent, said he has not been involved with the Obama campaign but that he has donated money and was cheering it on.

“I know that her grandfather and her father and my mom and all of our relatives that are now deceased would be so very, very proud of both of them,” Funnye told the Forward.

Michelle Obama and the Obama campaign did not respond to requests for comment.

Read the complete article at the link above.


  1. Anonymous3:46 PM

    I support Obama, and don't think that this issue has any bearing on the campaign, but it's important to note that the Black Hebrew Israelites have no connection to the Ethiopian Jews and are not recognized as being Jewish by the Jewish community. They are often anti-semitic, and claim to be the only descendants of biblical Jews.

  2. Anonymous9:16 PM

    Like most of his congregation, Rabbi Funnye was not born into Judaism; he adopted the religion later in life. He was born a Methodist but, dissatisfied, investigated other religions including Islam, before converting to Judaism, feeling a sense of intellectual and spiritual liberation in the constant examination that he saw the religion encouraging.

  3. In response to Anonymous #1, I attended a shabbat service at Rabbi Funnye's congregation. I found it both welcoming and inspiring, and there was no anti-semitism nor were there false biblical claims at all. Rabbi Funnye's credentials are accepted by many Chicago Jews, including rabbis of other Jewish congregations in Chicago who give guest sermons at Funnye's Beth Shalom B'nei Zaken.