You can call Tamar Manasseh a community activist. You can call her Black. You can call her Jewish.
And now — after initially being denied — you can also call her rabbi.
The celebrated changemaker made history on July 24 as the first woman ordained to the rabbinate at Chicago’s Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation. Rabbi Capers Funnye, who performed her ordination, described it as “a watershed moment” for the Israelite community.
“As I said during the ceremony, Tamar possesses all of the qualities and the qualifications to serve as a rabbi,” Funnye told the Forward. “Even before her ordination, she has taken her spirit, her ruach, to the community through her activism.”
That activism became widely known through the documentary “They Ain’t Ready for Me,” about Manasseh’s work starting the antiviolence group Mothers/Men Against Senseless Killings (MASK). The film was shown widely in Jewish congregations across the country for Black History Month this year.
Manasseh’s intersectionality runs deep. “I was born and bred Jewish in Chicago’s South Side, and grew up in the Englewood community, home to several churches,” she said — adding, “and liquor stores.”
She worships nearly five miles west at Beth Shalom, a mostly Black congregation in a Black and Hispanic neighborhood. Growing up, she also travelled daily roughly the same distance in the opposite direction, to Akiba-Schechter Jewish Day School in integrated Hyde Park. She keeps kosher, saw her daughter and son become b’nai mitzvah, and is “proficient in Torah Hebrew,” she said.
And she is unapologetically Black.
“It’s a whole different ball game when you grow up Jewish in a Black community,” said Manasseh. “As a child, I had philosophical conversations [with Black Christians] who asked how I decided I was going to be a Jew. I told them that I didn’t ‘decide’ — when I was born, this is who I was. From your very youngest years, it’s something that you have to stand up for, that you have to advocate for, that you have to protect.”
For those who question the halacha of the Israelite community — or more accurately, communities, since there are many different types of Hebrew Israelites with widely different religious practices (including some that have long ordained women) — Manasseh responds with a message of inclusion.
Her spiritual upbringing at B’nai Zaken, she said, was “more like a ‘Conservadox-Reform’ sort of community,” that included “aspects of traditional African and traditional Black religions, with half of the service in Hebrew and the other half in English. It was kind of enmeshed. That is why when people ask me what denomination I am, I’m just a Jew. I don’t feel like any Jew should have to conform or fit into a box so that people understand who they are. You say you’re a Jew, that’s good enough for me.”
Her expressions of faith are intertwined with grassroots activism. The mother of two put her body on the line in 2015 when she placed a lawn chair to watch over the corner of 75th and South Stewart Avenue, where another mother had been murdered. That was the start of MASK, and she’s still on that corner, maintaining that a consistent presence can reduce gun violence.
Volunteers from the neighborhood as well as the suburbs and even further away have joined her to keep watch, as well as to mentor local residents and provide meals. MASK now feeds some 200 people daily and has grown beyond the initial corner to five locations, including in New York.
While MASK has been credited with reducing violence in Englewood, it has by no means stopped it, and suffered an unthinkable tragedy in July 2019. Two mothers, 26-year-old Chantell Grant and Andrea Stoudemire, 36, were fatally shot by a passenger firing out the window of an SUV. Police said in a statement then that the two were not targeted in the attack, which may have been intended toward a male victim who was also shot but survived.
The killings “only made our resolve that much stronger,” Manasseh said. “We did not and absolutely could not let that senseless act of violence deter us. People are tired of being afraid.”
Manasseh’s work on the street brought her fame even before the documentary was made, with features about her on NBC News and the PBS NewsHour and invitations to write op-eds in The New York Times and the Forward, among others.
Her path to the rabbinate began in 2008 through the Israelite Academy. At that time, Funnye was the dean. While the Israelite group did not then ordain women, Funnye said he believed that would change by the time she was ready to graduate.
But that wasn’t the case, and the Israelite court did not allow the ordination of women until 2019 (the academy lists a female rabbi as its current dean). Funnye, who is now the Israelite chief rabbi, performed her ordination, compelled, he said, by her excellence as a student. He also cites the interconnection of her spiritual and anti-violence work.
“It is one thing for one to pray by rote and know all the prayers. It’s quite a different thing to live the prayers,” he said. “By camping out on that block working to reduce violence for so many years, Tamar lives the prayers. She has taken her Judaism outside of the synagogue to the streets.”
Manasseh elaborated on that connection. “I didn’t just learn how to lead a service on Shabbat. I learned how to save communities,” she said. “I learned that I should want to save my community. I learned how to use my Blackness and my Jewishness in its totality, and that all these people are my people. I learned to make it all work together and then apply that to the world.”
As for her new title of rabbi, Manasseh said her ordination won’t change her. “I can’t imagine my life becoming much different,” she said. “This is who I am.”
But, she added, it could broaden her reach.
“Sometimes, people need to hear a title to see that a person comes with a level of authority. So I’m thinking that perhaps this might be the difference.”