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!
  • Ari Folman's new movie 'The Congress' is a brilliant spectacle, an exhilarating visual extravaganza and a slapdash thought experiment. It's also unlike anything Forward critic Ezra Glinter has ever seen. http://jd.fo/d4unE
  • The eggplant is beloved in Israel. So why do Americans keep giving it a bad rap? With this new recipe, Vered Guttman sets out to defend the honor of her favorite vegetable.
  • “KlezKamp has always been a crazy quilt of gay and straight, religious and nonreligious, Jewish and gentile.” Why is the klezmer festival shutting down now?
  • “You can plagiarize the Bible, can’t you?” Jill Sobule says when asked how she went about writing the lyrics for a new 'Yentl' adaptation. “A couple of the songs I completely stole." Share this with the theater-lovers in your life!
  • Will Americans who served in the Israeli army during the Gaza operation face war crimes charges when they get back home?
  • Talk about a fashion faux pas. What was Zara thinking with the concentration camp look?
  • “The Black community was resistant to the Jewish community coming into the neighborhood — at first.” Watch this video about how a group of gardeners is rebuilding trust between African-Americans and Jews in Detroit.
  • "I am a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish man who was raised Catholic, but now considers himself a “common-law Jew.” We are raising our two young children as Jews. My husband's parents are still semi-practicing Catholics. When we go over to either of their homes, they bow their heads, often hold hands, and say grace before meals. This is an especially awkward time for me, as I'm uncomfortable participating in a non-Jewish religious ritual, but don't want his family to think I'm ungrateful. It's becoming especially vexing to me now that my oldest son is 7. What's the best way to handle this situation?" http://jd.fo/b4ucX What would you do?
  • Maybe he was trying to give her a "schtickle of fluoride"...
  • It's all fun, fun, fun, until her dad takes the T-Bird away for Shabbos.
  • "Like many Jewish people around the world, I observed Shabbat this weekend. I didn’t light candles or recite Hebrew prayers; I didn’t eat challah or matzoh ball soup or brisket. I spent my Shabbat marching for justice for Eric Garner of Staten Island, Michael Brown of Ferguson, and all victims of police brutality."
  • Happy #NationalDogDay! To celebrate, here's a little something from our archives:
  • A Jewish couple was attacked on Monday night in New York City's Upper East Side. According to police, the attackers flew Palestinian flags.
  • "If the only thing viewers knew about the Jews was what they saw on The Simpsons they — and we — would be well served." What's your favorite Simpsons' moment?
  • "One uncle of mine said, 'I came to America after World War II and I hitchhiked.' And Robin said, 'I waited until there was a 747 and a kosher meal.'" Watch Billy Crystal's moving tribute to Robin Williams at last night's #Emmys:
  • 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.