Last night, I was trying to think of ways to teach my young children about Martin Luther King. While searching online for books about Rosa Parks and "I had a Dream," a Facebook thread caught my eye. A close friend had just seen Rabbi Capers Funnye, an African American convert to Judaism and the head rabbi of a Chicago synagogue, in a local restaurant. Rabbi Funnye, who according to The New York Times used to hear the joke "Funnye, you don't look Jewish," is also a cousin of Michelle Obama. Apparently, he was in the neighborhood speaking about African American Jewry as part of a series of similar lectures taking place across the country.
In addition to being the first African American "Head Rabbi" of a synagogue, Funnye co-founded the Alliance of Black Jews in 1995. I thought how appropriate it was that my friend's sighting took place the night before Martin Luther King Day. King is Funnye's hero, the predecessor who set the groundwork for the Rabbi's tremendous efforts and strides. In recent times, the Rabbi has brought a lot of positive attention to the African American Jewish community, a community that is being embraced by Jews across the nation and finally getting the recognition and respect it deserves. Despite meeting with skepticism as the first and only black "Head Rabbi," Funnye contends in an article that ran in The New York Times, "I am a Jew, and that breaks through all color and ethnic barriers."
While reading about Funnye, how he decided to convert to Judaism after extensive and thorough exploration into religion (converting is no easy feat for anyone regardless of race, nor is being born Jewish!), I decided that I had something to add to what I was teaching my children. Martin Luther King Jr. did not just impact the world, he did not just pave the way for Barack Obama and other African American leaders who we respect today, but he impacted the Jewish community as well. Rabbi Funnye is evidence of that. Imagine how much harder the rabbi would have had to work to represent the African American Jewish community had there been no King. Yet he has worked incredibly hard and he is still working to achieve his own dream. Funnye's continuous efforts might be fruitless today had it not been for his influential predecessor.
It is my hope that my children will have the opportunity to meet Rabbi Funnye at an upcoming talk and see how far not only our country, but our religion has come, since Martin Luther King Jr. spoke and shared his dream.
Follow Shira Hirschman Weiss on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ShiraWeiss