Rabbi Capers Funnye -- cousin of U.S. first lady Michelle Obama -- is set to head the International Israelite Board of Rabbis, taking his place as the "first black chief rabbi" of the 21st century, the Times of Israel reported Monday. The 63-year-old Chicago native will take over as the "titular head of a worldwide community of Black Jews," according to a statement from the organization.
The International Israelite Board of Rabbis is a community with branches in the United States, the Caribbean, South Africa, Uganda and Nigeria. Funnye, who is expected to begin his duties in the fall, was elected as the group's head rabbi unanimously. He is the first person to take over the position since the 1999 death of Rabbi Levi Ben Levy, making him the first of the 21st century.
"Rabbi Funnye’s work with Black Jews in the United States and Africa made him uniquely qualified for this position," said the International Israelite Board of Rabbis in a statement.
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Funnye grew up attending an African Methodist Episcopal church on Chicago's South Side, but found Judaism as an adult. He is now the rabbi for Beth Shalom B'nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation in Chicago. Funnye hopes to show people that Judaism features a more diverse set of believers than some might expect.
"Unfortunately, by and large, when you see any imagery of Jews in the United States, very seldom do you see members of my community," Funnye told the Chicago Tribune. "But we have African-American Jews, African Jews, Filipino Jews, Mexican Jews, white Jews and biracial Jews. It is really what the Jewish people, in fact, have always looked like. … We have to promote that Jews have always been a global people."
Funnye has long been a leader in his city's Jewish community and is the only black member of the Chicago Board of Rabbis. The Ethiopian Hebrew movement, to which Funnye belongs, has remained largely outside the mainstream Jewish community because other Jews did not consider them Jewish without a conversion process, reported the Tribune. Funnye, however, took the relatively uncommon step among his congregation of converting according to Jewish law.
"I was already a Jew in my heart," he said, according to the Tribune. "It validated for those around me my degree of sincerity of saying … 'I am a Jew.' "
Funnye has traveled widely, including in Africa and Israel, where he met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to promote acceptance of black Jews. In 2009, he attended President Barack Obama's first inauguration and appeared at a number of events, including a dinner for close friends and advisors, according to a New York Times report at the time.