Black Jews Gain Wider Acceptance

Gaps Between African-American and Mainstream Groups Narrow

Solemn Service: Rabbi Capers Funnye places a miter on the head of rabbi-to-be James Brazelton.
michael eldridge
Solemn Service: Rabbi Capers Funnye places a miter on the head of rabbi-to-be James Brazelton.

By Len Lyons

Published July 23, 2012, issue of July 27, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

The ordination took place on a sun-drenched Sabbath, in a synagogue used many decades ago by Lithuanian Jews. But on June 23, it was 200 mostly black worshippers, many in brightly colored African dress, who were on their feet, eyes fixed on a procession of eight white-robed rabbis with ceremonial miters crowning their heads as they strode, single file, down the aisle separating the men’s and women’s seating.

All were gathered at Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation to create a new rabbi for this small, passionate but scarcely known tradition of black Judaism.

Read the Forward’s account of Black Jewish services. It’s not your typical Saturday at shul.

Though it was mid-afternoon and the morning shacharit service was long finished, very few had left the sanctuary; the ordination of the new rabbi was the day’s big event. As a delegation of black Jews visiting from New York for the important occasion looked on, the rabbis mounted the bimah and, with the open ark as a backdrop, arranged themselves into a half circle and faced the congregation.

For many mainstream Jews, this is a ceremony that might seem alien. But today, the differences between them and these black Jews, who have long been ignored or dismissed as inauthentic by the Jewish establishment, seems more like one of culture and ethnicity than Jewish identity.

While they once called themselves Hebrew Israelites exclusively to distinguish themselves from Jews of European extraction, the black Jews now readily count themselves among the Jewish people without qualification. An increasing number seek out formal conversion, a practice previously seen only as a concession to the expectations of mainstream Jews. Some 85% of the members at Beth Shalom have done so, according to Rabbi Capers Funnye (pronounced Fun-NAY), their spiritual leader, who is himself a member of the mainstream Chicago Board of Rabbis (and cousin to First Lady Michelle Obama).

Today, a cadre of teens and young adults have graduated from yeshivas and Jewish day schools, creating educational parity and a shared frame of reference with the wider Jewish community. And last year, Israel’s ambassador to Washington, Michael Oren, paid an unprecedented visit to a black synagogue, Temple Bethel in Philadelphia, and told them, “We are a single people endowed with the same blessings and obligations. Israel belongs to us all.”

Back in Chicago, the man for whom the ordination ceremony was intended was last in line to mount the bimah. Wearing a knit skullcap, James Brazelton ascended and knelt in front of the Ark. A fit and youthful 62-year-old Vietnam War veteran with a broad smile, Brazelton was raised as a Baptist, became a Hebrew Israelite in the early 1970s and was converted by a Conservative beit din, or religious court, in 2003.

Rabbi Sholomo ben Levy, president of the Israelite Board of Rabbis, dabbed oil on the forehead of the kneeling man. Then, Funnye, as spiritual leader of the host synagogue, removed Brazelton’s kippah and replaced it with a tall white miter, a head covering worn by the high priest in the ancient Temple. After reading proclamations extolling his achievements, the attending rabbis helped Brazelton rise, now transformed into Rabbi Yahath ben Yehuda (the name Yahath is found in I Chronicles). He turned a beaming face to the congregation, who acknowledged him with applause, hallelujahs and flashing iPhone cameras.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • “I don’t want to say, ‘Oh oh, I’m not Jewish,’ because when you say that, you sound like someone trying to get into a 1950s country club, “and I love the idea of being Jewish." Are you a fan of Seth Meyers?
  • "If you want my advice: more Palestinians, more checkpoints, just more reality." What do you think?
  • Happy birthday Barbra Streisand! Our favorite Funny Girl turns 72 today.
  • Clueless parenting advice from the star of "Clueless."
  • Why won't the city give an answer?
  • BREAKING NEWS: Israel has officially suspended peace talks with the Palestinians.
  • Can you guess what the most boring job in the army is?
  • What the foolish rabbi of Chelm teaches us about Israel and the Palestinian unity deal:
  • Mazel tov to Idina Menzel on making Variety "Power of Women" cover! http://jd.fo/f3Mms
  • "How much should I expect him and/or ask him to participate? Is it enough to have one parent reciting the prayers and observing the holidays?" What do you think?
  • New York and Montreal have been at odds for far too long. Stop the bagel wars, sign our bagel peace treaty!
  • Really, can you blame them?
  • “How I Stopped Hating Women of the Wall and Started Talking to My Mother.” Will you see it?
  • Taglit-Birthright Israel is redefining who they consider "Jewish" after a 17% drop in registration from 2011-2013. Is the "propaganda tag" keeping young people away?
  • Happy birthday William Shakespeare! Turns out, the Bard knew quite a bit about Jews.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.