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Chicago, IL - Michelle Obama Has a Convert Rabbi in Her Family

Published on: September 2, 2008 11:55 AM
By: Forward By Anthony Weiss
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Rabbi Capers C. Funnye, Jr.Chicago, IL - While Barack Obama has struggled to capture the Jewish vote, it turns out that one of his wife’s cousins is the country’s most prominent black rabbi — a fact that has gone largely unnoticed.

Michelle Obama, wife of the Democratic presidential nominee, and Rabbi Capers Funnye, spiritual leader of a mostly black synagogue on Chicago’s South Side, are first cousins once removed. Funnye’s mother, Verdelle Robinson Funnye (born Verdelle Robinson) and Michelle Obama’s paternal grandfather, Frasier Robinson Jr., were brother and sister.

Funnye (pronounced fuh-NAY) is chief rabbi at the Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation in southwest Chicago. He is well-known in Jewish circles for acting as a bridge between mainstream Jewry and the much smaller, and largely separate, world of black Jewish congregations, sometimes known as black Hebrews or Israelites. He has often urged the larger Jewish community to be more accepting of Jews who are not white.

Funnye’s famous relative gives an unexpected twist to the much-analyzed relationship between Barack Obama and Jews in this presidential campaign. On the one hand, Jewish political organizers, voters and donors played an essential role in Obama’s rise to power in Chicago, including some of the city’s wealthiest and most prominent families. But the Illinois senator has struggled to overcome suspicions in some parts of the Jewish community, including skepticism about his stance on Israel and discredited but persistent rumors that he is secretly a Muslim.

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Funnye, who described himself as an independent, said he has not been involved with the Obama campaign but that he has donated money and was cheering it on.

“I know that her grandfather and her father and my mom and all of our relatives that are now deceased would be so very, very proud of both of them,” Funnye told the Forward.

Michelle Obama and the Obama campaign did not respond to requests for comment.

Funnye told the Forward that he has known Michelle Obama (born Michelle Robinson) all her life. His mother and her father, Frasier Robinson III, enjoyed a close relationship, and Funnye said he saw Michelle several times a year when they were growing up, mostly at family functions and on occasional visits to her house.

“Her father was like the glue of our family,” Funnye said. “He always wanted to keep the family very connected and to stay in touch with each other.”

Funnye, 56, said he and Michelle, 44, were not especially close growing up, but he remembers her as “energetic and smart and very caring.”

The two fell out of touch when they grew older and went their separate ways but then reconnected years later when Michelle Obama was working for the University of Chicago and Funnye was leading a local social service organization called Blue Gargoyle. Funnye also worked with Barack Obama, then a state senator, who came and spoke at events for the organization. When Barack and Michelle Obama married, Funnye and his family attended the wedding.

Alhough Funnye’s congregation describes itself as Ethiopian Hebrew, it is not connected to the Ethiopian Jews, commonly called Beta Israel, who have immigrated to Israel en masse in recent decades. It is also separate from the Black Hebrews in Dimona, Israel, and the Hebrew Israelite black supremacist group whose incendiary street harangues have become familiar spectacles in a number of American cities.

Funnye converted to Judaism and was ordained as a rabbi under the supervision of black Israelite rabbis, then went through another conversion supervised by Orthodox and Conservative rabbis. He serves on the Chicago Board of Rabbis.

Funnye’s relationship with the Obama family was reported in the Chicago Jewish News in an article dated August 22. A Wall Street Journal article in April reported that the aspiring first lady had a cousin (whom the paper mistakenly referred to as a second cousin) who is a prominent black rabbi but did not mention Funnye by name.

The rabbi’s familial connection with the Democratic presidential nominee is also a matter of common knowledge in Funnye’s synagogue.

“He really jumped on everyone’s radar after the 2004 convention,” Funnye said. “That’s when some people said, ‘Isn’t he related to you or something?’ I said, ‘Yeah, he’s married to my cousin, and she’s making him everything that he is.’”



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Read Comments (48)  —  Post Yours »

1

 Sep 02, 2008 at 12:09 PM Anonymous Says:

Right ON Brother!!! Mo power to the People

2

 Sep 02, 2008 at 12:10 PM Anonymous Says:

Black Hebrews or Israelites? Are these the same "Earth, Wind & Fire" group that hangs around Time Square yelling at white people.

Of course observant "black" or African or African American Jews who are jewish don't need to be labeled any of the above... Just Jewish

3

 Sep 02, 2008 at 12:15 PM murray Says:

This "Funny Caper", coming out now is just that- a funny caper, and will Not garner any serious Jewish support, nor should it.

4

 Sep 02, 2008 at 12:16 PM Anonymous Says:

That's Fun NAY!

5

 Sep 02, 2008 at 12:17 PM Anonymous Says:

He makes some mean latkes, drives a Yeshivishe Chevy, lights a menorah and he can slam dunk!

6

 Sep 02, 2008 at 12:21 PM Anonymous Says:

You're all racist. Funnye, but racist.

7

 Sep 02, 2008 at 12:54 PM Lock & Load Says:

What a Funnye Joke....

8

 Sep 02, 2008 at 12:59 PM Anonymous Says:

for the last poster to say because his cousin has a close relationshipo to the chicago communitty obama might be a great choice....are you a wack or just a quack

9

 Sep 02, 2008 at 01:04 PM Simchat Torah Says:

They are NOT Jews they are "hebrews" who are "self described" Jews just like many xtians who believe they are "spiritual Jews" because they believe in yuske yemach shemo.

10

 Sep 02, 2008 at 01:25 PM Anonymous Says:

I'm researching the "congregation" website...
The first thing I notice is the absence of the the word "Jew" or "Jewish" except for this passage (and a reference to some "rabbis" degree in Jewish Studies)

"Though the standard classification of "Jews" along Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform
lines are an extremely ambiguous set of minhagim (customs), our way of life closely
resemble those of the modern orthodox with clear conservative and African-American
influences."

These people are not Jewish nor a liberal branch of Judaism...VIN...chime in please

11

 Sep 02, 2008 at 01:29 PM Anonymous Says:

Rabbi Capers Funnye's shul practices are very much like the reform and conservetive movements.

they kiss each other in shul the womans chior is popular they use mikes on shabbos so ye he doesnt count

12

 Sep 02, 2008 at 01:31 PM Anonymous Says:

"Membership in Beth Shalom is achieved only after the successful completion of a probationary period"

Maybe they've on to something...

13

 Sep 02, 2008 at 01:42 PM good pick Says:

than let his congregants vote for barack hussein obama, because i'm not

14

 Sep 02, 2008 at 01:59 PM BMG_KTLR Says:

Enough with the jokes about the name. Please be kind.

15

 Sep 02, 2008 at 02:08 PM Anonymous Says:

He's as jewish as kermit the hemishe frog

16

 Sep 02, 2008 at 02:24 PM murray Says:

BMG- the jokes are going to keep coming, and they should....this is Great stuff! As to the comment that to become a member of this "Congregation" one must first pass a probationary period ? is this to mean you have to have been assigned Probation by the Court system, it wasn't clear, and what about if you were recently paroled, also is community service involved, and lastly what about bail? I think these things need to be clarified.

17

 Sep 02, 2008 at 03:34 PM oy vey! Says:

whats the so-called rabbi's "hebrew" name (no pun intended)? ouch i just hit my FUNNYE bone.... he must be a very very chosuve rabbi with a ring... ok i am waiting for those comments to bombard me to say its nothing wrong with a ring and that they know many many gedoilim that wore a ring ok bring it on chevra

18

 Sep 02, 2008 at 03:40 PM Anonymous Says:

if this is the way frum jews act, id rather daven at rabbi funneys shul than at any heimishe shteeb in crooklyn

19

 Sep 02, 2008 at 03:41 PM שוקו-וניל Says:

א שווארץ יאר אין דיין טאטנ'ס טאטען אריין....

All jokes aside, I don't get the part where it says that he "went through another conversion supervised by Orthodox and Conservative rabbis"..
Is there a Conversion board in Chicago made up of a joint coalition of Orthodox and Conservative rabbis?!

However, If he was converted by an Orthodox Rabbi and Received Smicha, I'd possibly consider giving him my vote. Not to his cousin though... You dig?!

20

 Sep 02, 2008 at 03:51 PM Anonymous Says:

I don't know who's a bigger joke he or his cousin.

21

 Sep 02, 2008 at 03:55 PM Rabbi Says:

let it be clear, when someone that was born jewish, than even he is not observing all TARYA"G (613) mitzvos prompetly, you could make an argement that he is JEWISH because "yisroel sha'coto yisroel he", but if someone is converting to some kind of reformed practice of judisem and he didn't really accepated all the mitzvos, there is no way that the "giros" is valid and he is a POLNO GOY.

22

 Sep 02, 2008 at 04:04 PM Anonymous Says:

It's a good thing he's wearing a white yarmulke otherwise I would've never guessed it. :O)

23

 Sep 02, 2008 at 04:08 PM I just hope Says:

I think Capers in hebrew is Calev and Funnye is hebrew is Yefuneh making him Calev ben Yefuneh?

24

 Sep 02, 2008 at 04:43 PM Anonymous Says:

Anon 4:35
Relax, no one has made fun of his ethnicity or of his facial features he happens to have a funny sounding name and that's where most of the jokes were harmlessly directed at. Your comparison is way off line.

25

 Sep 02, 2008 at 04:57 PM zeeskiet Says:

wow harav hagon rav oboma is mechibud mit sidur kedishen .... i know its not funny buts its a cousin with funye...lol

26

 Sep 02, 2008 at 05:37 PM Calev Montgomery Says:

I am a black jew. Doing everythin as a white jew. In the torah there is a jo black or white or yellow...the torah is multi ethnic,The torah is accepting every person who follows the 613 mitzvoth.. Thank you
Calev Montgomery

27

 Sep 02, 2008 at 05:58 PM logic Says:

to 9/2/08 @ 5:37pm

You are correct. I happen to believe that it's more important to be a mentch first regardless of what religion you practice. If you are that, Kol Hakovod to you, and the 613 mitzvoth you observe is icing on the cake...

28

 Sep 02, 2008 at 06:00 PM murray Says:

re: Calev- as was said before- no racism here-all races/peoples/colors all other things being equal its all good-its just that wild name, man-Is it even for real, or a "stage name", pen-name, alias or what? Admit it-its really "out there"

29

 Sep 02, 2008 at 06:07 PM Mark Levin Says:

So this is the only spin the Obamanation campaign could come out with so the liberal jews (aka Feel Good Jews) will like their lying candidate? Just wait till Hussein tosses this brother under the bus.

30

 Sep 02, 2008 at 06:08 PM TD Says:

we could use more rabbis like him!

31

 Sep 02, 2008 at 06:42 PM Choizik Says:

Oh, thats great! Now I'm definitly going to vote for Obama.

32

 Sep 02, 2008 at 07:40 PM visit Says:

Their site says that they don't keep 613... Check it out.

33

 Sep 02, 2008 at 07:49 PM Anonymous Says:

Obama sent his daughter to a Jewish (orthodox run) preschool- Akiba Schechter

34

 Sep 02, 2008 at 07:57 PM Avrohom Abba Says:

If he really was converted by Orthodox rabbis, I wouold love to know who performed the procedure. If he really got smicha, I'd be curious to know where he got that smicha.
If the above are true, he is sovery welcome and it's a great honor to know that someone realized the true road has no race requirements and there are no tolls. Welcome brother.

35

 Sep 02, 2008 at 08:01 PM ploni Says:

black hebrews didn't receive their commandments on Har Sinai, they received them from Har Lem

36

 Sep 02, 2008 at 10:58 PM Anonymous Says:

Ploni...tut tut!

37

 Sep 02, 2008 at 11:48 PM abi gezunt Says:

guys shame on u. if he realy is an orthodox convert then u were just oiver on halbonas punim and u will need to ask rabbi funny mechilah!

38

 Sep 03, 2008 at 03:15 AM A none Amos without andy Says:

If you think Rabbi Funnye is funny name, the Vatican's chief man in the Phillipines was Cardinal Sin.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jaime_Cardinal_Sin

And if you think Rabbi Funnye looks funny with a kipa, here's a baptist Gospel singer without a kipa that's even funnier. Warning: Kol isha(?) later in the video.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=elAs4Hl5LGo

39

 Sep 03, 2008 at 06:03 AM YS-DP-UA Says:

BS"D

Please see his "shul"'s website.

http://www.bethshalombz.org/about.html

"Although some credible scholars have attempted to determine the racial classification
of the ancient Israelites, we believe they were people of African descent. We also believe
that G-D is a spirit and those that worship Him "must worship Him in spirit' instead of pigmentation. There are approximately 5.4 million white Jews in America today and an
estimated 150,000 Black Jews or Hebrew Israelites. As a large community, we have
theological, philosophical, and political differences that divide us into distinct groups.
We here at Beth Shalom are proud of our uniqueness and hope that you will also appreciate
and enjoy it.

Our way of life is practiced essentially as Rabbi Matthew and Rabbi Reuben established it.
Though the standard classification of "Jews" along Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform
lines are an extremely ambiguous set of minhagim (customs), our way of life closely
resemble those of the modern orthodox with clear conservative and African-American
influences. For instance, a lay person would notice that we maintain separate seating
for men and women in our sanctuary, but believe in the complete equality of women. We
allow travel on the Shabbat (Sabbath) for worship services, and follow a biblical definition
of kosher foods that prohibits the eating of pork and certain kinds of sea food but does not
require the separation of milk and meat products. However, we do have members who are
strictly kosher according to the Halakah."

His shtus is a gentler but no less racist version of Black Hebrew or similar nonsense, where they claim that the original bnei Yisroel were Africans.

40

 Sep 03, 2008 at 09:49 AM LES Kid Says:

This Rabbi is a member of the Chicago Board of Rabbis which lends legitimacy to him being a Yid. It's not right to besmirch a fellow Jew, especially a Rabbi. It's not like he is accused of anything scandalous, just a cousin of some politicians wife.

41

 Sep 03, 2008 at 11:45 AM yiush Says:

He went through an orthodox conversion. That makes him just as Jewish as anybody on this site.

BTW, Moshiach comes from a convert as well.

You are all just a bunch of racists.

42

 Sep 03, 2008 at 11:57 AM Anonymous Says:

er iz fun de satmara shvartza....

43

 Sep 03, 2008 at 12:22 PM Midwest Yid Says:

It is hard to comment on this story withotu a joke...could anything be more ready made. "A black Rabbi and former Muslim who is now a christian walks into the White House... But seriously. come on, these are not Jews. These are self proclaimed Judeo philes, but probably have much less Yichus than any Beta Yisroel or other Ethiopian Jew. Look, you can call yourself what ever the heck you want, but don't force me to accept you.

44

 Sep 03, 2008 at 07:36 PM Anonymous Says:

So, let me get this straight, as many people hear seem to think there is no difference between a white or black Jew: if white men can't jump, but black men can, does that mean only white Jews can't jump, or would we also say black Jews can't jump as well? Food for thought!

45

 Sep 12, 2008 at 08:59 PM David Montefiore Says:

It's really sad when a newspaper like the Forwards or any Jewish Newspaper has to publish an article which seeks to say "Hey, look over here! He or she's got Jewish connections or Jewish roots." What a condescension to educated and non-educated Jews. Being qualified for office is the only yardstick American Jews or any other ethnic group should be looking at. Barack Obama can be the brother of the Chief Rabbi of Israel - but he is simply not qualified - he is not qualified by virtue of his inexperience.
The article, simply put, is an effrontery to any literate person.

46

 Sep 16, 2008 at 04:50 PM pigeon Says:

Why can those of us who are born Jewish practice Reform or Conservative judaism, but converts have to be Orthodox and obey all 613? That's ridiculous!

It looks to me like Rabbi Funnye is Conservative, pretty mainstream, but adapting to the ethnicity of his congregation. Like Sephardis and Ashkenazis - different strokes...

47

 Jan 21, 2009 at 05:41 PM Edwin Svigals Says:

Reply to #18  
Anonymous Says:

if this is the way frum jews act, id rather daven at rabbi funneys shul than at any heimishe shteeb in crooklyn

My feelings exactly. These infantile zhlubs' comments are shameful...

48

 Mar 11, 2009 at 04:10 PM Anonymous Says:

He is just as Jewish as I am, it something to proud of not be made fun of.

49

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