Rabbi Funnye’s Message of Inclusivity

When I heard the Synagogue Council of Massachusetts was hosting an event featuring Rabbi Capers Funnye, I wondered how they would frame the program. Would the Council see this as an opportunity to foster discussion, encourage member synagogues to engage with diversity in the Jewish community? I hoped that the event would be a starting point, a chance to reflect on how we can better include Jews of all colours in our community, then start discussing what actions to take. At worst, I feared this evening would be purely congratulatory, a pat on the back that, just by inviting Rabbi Funnye to talk, our synagogues are obviously inclusive and welcoming!

Luckily, the introductory remarks by members of the Synagogue Council executive set the right tone: Representing 120 synagogues across Massachusetts, the Council encourages learning and dialogue, embraces diversity, and promotes pluralism. Officially, their website notes that they “nurture a respect for diversity within our Jewish community.”

And then we launched into the main event. Rabbi Funnye was there to talk about his journey to, with, Judaism. In telling it, he suggested that his story could actually be that of many African-American Jewish converts. And that story started with a cruise. A “free cruise,” organized by a “travel agent,” with too many people in too small a space (and the food wasn’t good either). At the conclusion of the trip, they were given new names, and introduced to a new G-d who, coincidentally, looked a lot like their new captors. Within the span of three minutes, Funnye wove his personal journey in with over 100 years of African-American history. Ending in the 1960’s, Funnye talked about how reading up on civil rights led to re-reading the bible with an understanding that these stories weren’t just happening to an abstract people, but was the history of a people with whom he felt a connection, an understanding.

Throughout, his talk was punctuated with humour. At first, these jokes were met with silence. Slowly, the audience started chuckling quietly. It was as if the audience, mostly white folks in their 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s, were afraid to laugh. But Funnye was funny. And, slowly, the audience realised that they could relax and enjoy his message while also learning from it.

Funnye had the great ability to weave a story that included not only a version of his own personal journey, but also that of Jews in Africa today. Through his work with Be’chol Lashon, he’s travelled to many countries in Africa to work with the local Jewish populations. Explaining the differences between American and African Jews, he told a story of a woman who was her village’s mohel (the person who performs the bris milah – circumcision). This particular Nigerian community was described as being somewhere within the realm of Orthodoxy by American standards, and yet a woman was the mohel. When Funnye asked her about that, she explained that as a woman she couldn’t read the Torah, she couldn’t sit with the men in synagogue, she was not required to perform as many commandments as the men, but it said in the Torah that she was to circumcise the men. Her proof? Tziporah, Moses’ wife, a Cushite woman, was in charge of circumcising their youngest son.

So what was the point of these stories? Throughout the talk, Funnye repeated his message of the need for inclusion, acceptance, and a better understanding of how a diverse Jewish population can learn from each other. He gave examples of how African-American Jews can help build bridges between synagogues and churches and mosques. He spoke to the importance of welcoming all Jewish souls and hearts to Judaism, and the reasons why we need to have more welcoming, while still halakhic, conversion processes. And he spoke to the Jewish establishment needing to see and serve the full range of colours that Jews come in. (As an example of the shortcomings of Jewish institutions, Funnye talked about his small rabbinical school in Queens, NY that serves the African-American Jewish community. It was started when an African-American Jew, who had two degrees from Yeshiva University, was denied entry to their rabbinical school because of his skin colour).

I have no doubt that the audience was moved by his talk. I just hope that conversations continue, individual members of the Jewish community, congregations, and the Council alike all put plans in place for ensuring that our community is actually as welcoming as the audience was last night.

I should apologize for the crap quality of the video. Arriving 15 minutes early, I found a seat at the back and on the far left side of the sanctuary. And using this Flip camcorder for the first time, I didn’t know how poor the sound quality would be. (Crank up your volume.) That said, what a fun gadget! Once I rig up a tripod for it, it’ll be much more useful.

14 Responses to “Rabbi Funnye’s Message of Inclusivity”

  1. 100 years of African American history? Uh, that “cruise” line started a LOT more than 100 years ago. There are almost 500 years of slave history in North America.

    Thanks for covering this. No time to watch the vids but I will later. I’ve seen other vids of Rabbi Funnye talking and I enjoy hearing his stories.

    T · October 30th, 2009 at 7:11 am
  2. @T, I wrote “over 100 years of African-American history. Ending in the 1960’s…” It could have been 1860, it could have been earlier. So, yes, over 100 years doesn’t negate 101-500 years.

    TheWanderingJew · October 30th, 2009 at 9:34 am
  3. When white groups proclaim themselves the true Israelites, the Jewish community is understandably hostile.

    While the phenomenon is more complicated in the black community, and it is certainly not always hostile (though there are plenty of black groups that are very, very hostile, such as with the sect the dude who lives two buildings down from me in a section eight housing apartment who hates the ice children imposters of the evil archangel, Yakub), I see no need to be overly open to those operating unilaterally and outside the mainstream Jewish community.

    Being “open” cannot be a substitute for “we’ll do want when you cry racism.”

    DK · October 30th, 2009 at 11:26 am
  4. Hmm… DK sees a black man and is automatically suspect. Hmm.

    If you take the time to read articles on this rabbi, you’d see that while there are still nationalist/separatist elements in his congregation, he is trying his damned best to integrate his community (and Black Jews in general) with the mainstream Jewish community. What’s left is for the mainstream Jewish community to reach a hand in return.

    B.BarNavi · October 30th, 2009 at 11:59 am
  5. Sorry, I guess I misread/ read too quickly. I thought you were referring something other than what you were.

    T · October 30th, 2009 at 1:00 pm
  6. @B.BarNavi that’s correct. During the Q&A session, Rabbi Funnye was specifically asked about Black Hebrews, in the US and Dimona. For both populations, he stressed that they were not Jewish. For the former, he explained that there were some Black Hebrew families in his Chicago congregation; most of them had or were converting to Judaism. For the latter, he explained that they follow the messiah, and his teachings; they are not Jews. But his point was that all Jews, regardless of colour, should be welcomed into the great Jewish community. And if they need to go through conversion or reversion to be recognized halakhically as Jews, we should support them in that.

    TheWanderingJew · October 30th, 2009 at 1:21 pm
  7. Your comments, notwithstanding the ways in which they were good, still display one of the big problems with the outlook of American Jewish of European descent: the assumption that all Jews of Color are converts. We aren’t! Rabbi Capers talked about his own journey, but he also made remarks about Jews of Color who grew up in the tribe. It’s really imperative, if you want the inclusiveness you speak of to be a reality, that you NEVER, *ever* asssume that one of us is a convert.

    That’s one of the reasons why so many Whites feel free to start their conversations with us using remarks that are ill-informed, obtuse, or downright insulting. Which is why so many of us walk away from Judaism before adulthood.

    zalel · October 31st, 2009 at 6:19 pm
  8. an African-American Jew, who had two degrees from Yeshiva University, was denied entry to their rabbinical school because of his skin colour).
    Wow! When was that? Please tell me that’s not still policy…

    But his point was that all Jews, regardless of colour, should be welcomed into the great Jewish community. And if they need to go through conversion or reversion to be recognized halakhically as Jews, we should support them in that.
    Duh!! I really disappointed that we still need to iterate statements like this….

    Ruth B · October 31st, 2009 at 11:43 pm
  9. Which is why so many of us walk away from Judaism before adulthood.

    If true, this is really unfortunate. The best way to raises white jews’ awareness is be being present and forcing their eyes open with your story. While not everyone can be the blogger MaNishtana with his spectacular youtube video on “jocslapping”, some kind of visibility (in whatever way is authentic to you) seems like the main way this sitiation will change. I mean, don’t let other people’s ethnic solipsism define your heritage for you.

    chillul Who? · November 1st, 2009 at 9:41 am
  10. apologies for the typoes…getting my jschool fix on a borrowed phone :)

    chillul Who? · November 1st, 2009 at 9:43 am
  11. I’m with chillul Who? here. And I think TheWanderingJew makes a good point about conversions, and in the original post, that they need to be more welcoming. If we’re going to be a Tribe in the modern world, we should be a welcoming and inclusive one.

    renaissanceboy · November 1st, 2009 at 11:27 am
  12. cW? – Can you provide links to the blog & video you mentioned?

    dlevy · November 1st, 2009 at 1:06 pm
  13. @Ruth B, Funnye was ordained in 1985 and the school was established before that. I do not know when the other rabbi was denied by YU, but it had to have been before 1980.
    Duh!! I really disappointed that we still need to iterate statements like this…
    I am too, and yet, a whole event was held to reiterate this message, and Rabbi Funnye, Bechol Lashon, JREF, and other organizations reiterate this message on a daily basis.

    TheWanderingJew · November 2nd, 2009 at 9:35 am
  14. manishtana.wordpress.com/2009/10/26/a-history-of-implict-violence/ should work

    chillul Who? · November 2nd, 2009 at 10:17 am

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