The Black Jews of South-Side ChicagoAPRIL 19, 2008
- Holding the Torah at Temple Beth Shalom
- (Photo courtesy Temple Beth Shalom)
- View the Slideshow
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Temple Beth Shalom was built more than six decades ago, when the South Side of Chicago was full of Eastern European Jews. The synagogue is still here, but the congregation has changed. Today, the members are mostly African-American, and they call themselves Hebrew Israelites.
In some ways, the congregation borrows from traditions of black Christian worship. Congregants stand at their pews, clapping and singing, and many wear dashikis and tailored black robes. Men wear large skullcaps of traditional African design, with Jewish iconography woven into the patterns.
Tammy McCullough has attended the synagogue since she was a child, and says she identifies with the ancient Israelites because they were dark-skinned and they were slaves. "My grandmother always told me we were the people who came out of Egypt," McCullough says.
"We don't forget we're descendants from slaves -- we went through a lot to get here as a people. We bring that spirit with us in the music, in the teaching, in the speaking," she says. "We are passionate people, because at one point that's all we had, our passion and our music. That's all we had."
The Hebrew Israelite movement started in the early 1900s, around the same time as The Nation of Islam. Both religious movements appealed to African-Americans who were seeking a new identity beyond the black Christian church.
At a recent Saturday, Rabbi Capers Funnye led the congregation through a six-hour service that included prayers in Hebrew. He also gave a sermon about the environment, using Biblical interpretation.
Rabbi Funnye was born a Christian and grew up in the South during the Jim Crow era. In his mind, he couldn't separate Christianity from the politics of segregation. He went through a spiritual crisis -- he looked at Islam for a while, then explored Judaism. One day, he asked a white rabbi about the role of Africans in the Old Testament. "He said... many of the first Jews were in fact people of African descent -- and I said a 'Ha! That's starting to make some sense -- now we can talk more."
There are different sub-groups within Judaism, from Hasidic to Sephardic. Rabbi Funnye studied all of them, and picked the practices that made sense to him. He became a Jew in 1971 and eventually was ordained as a rabbi -- because, he says, it fit his personality and his inquisitive mind.
"Judaism allows a person to be as intellectual as they can possibly be, and still hold on to all the faith in the world," Rabbi Funnye says. "You do not have to give up your faith to be a good Jew. You do not have to give up your intellect to be a good Jew. They coexist within the Jew. Other faiths don't necessarily allow that.
"So why Judaism? You can question God."
In some ways, Rabbi Funnye's spiritual development, and the black synagogue, mirrors the history of activism in the black community from the Civil Rights movement to identity politics. Judaism, he says, provides a set of rules that governs daily life. The rituals remind people that God is watching, and Jewish law help them wrestle with moral choices, both big and small. "That's the wresting inside of every human being that has to go on," Rabbi Funnye says. "And Judaism allows those dichotomies and those tensions to exist in us. And it's OK. It's OK."
His positive message seems to resonate -- membership has soared. And he's bringing the congregation closer to their roots in Africa: Temple Beth Shalom is working with several congregations in Uganda. Rabbi Funnye says that unlike Ethiopian Jews, the congregations in Uganda have had very little contact with the outside Jewish world until now.
"And one group of leaders said to me in my last visit in September: 'Rabbi, please, if we join and you become our spiritual leader, please tell me that we can still drum and dance.' I said I wouldn't have it any other way."
Back in Chicago, even white Jews are beginning to come through the door. But these are mostly Reform Jews, from the liberal wing of Judaism. The Orthodox refuse to recognize Hebrew Israelites. Some of the black Jews aren't sure what to make of the white congregants. The Rabbi hopes to bridge the gap and let both sides know they should feel right at home with each other.
"The pronunciation may be a little different, but the words are the same," he says.
- Music Bridge:
- Artist: Steven Bernstein
- CD: Diaspora Suite (Tzadik)