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.