Rabbi Capers Funnye celebrated Martin Luther King Day this year in New York City at the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue, a mainstream Reform congregation, in the company of about 700 fellow Jews — many of them black. The organizers of the event had reached out to four of New York’s Black Jewish synagogues in the hope of promoting Jewish diversity, and they weren’t disappointed. African-American Jews, largely from Brooklyn, the Bronx and Queens, many of whom had never been in a predominantly white synagogue, made up about a quarter of the audience. Most of the visiting women wore traditional African garb; the men stood out because, though it was a secular occasion, most kept their heads covered. But even with your eyes closed you could tell who was who: the black Jews and the white Jews clapped to the music on different beats.
Funnye, the chief rabbi of the Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation in Chicago, one of the largest black synagogues in America, was a featured speaker that night. The overflowing audience came out in a snowstorm to hear his thoughts about two men: the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Barack Obama. King is Funnye’s hero. Obama, whose inauguration was to take place the following day in Washington, is family — the man who married Funnye’s cousin Michelle.
A compact, serious-looking man in his late 50s, Funnye (pronounced fu-NAY) wore a dark business suit and a large gray knit skullcap. He sat expressionless, collecting his thoughts, as Joshua Nelson and his Kosher Gospel Band steamed through their sanctified rendition of the Hebrew hymn “Adon Olam.” Nelson, a black Jew, was raised in two Jewish worlds — a white Reform temple in New Jersey and a Black Jewish synagogue in Brooklyn — and he borrows from both. The first time the Rev. Al Sharpton heard a recording of Nelson’s “Adon Olam,” he said, “I can hear that’s Mahalia Jackson, but what language is she singing in?” [...]