The self-ordained Matthew saw blacks as the original Jews, but his Judaism nonetheless had more in common with conventional white synagogues than Crowdy’s. He retained some unusual beliefs, such as the idea that white Jews are descended from the Khazars, a semi-nomadic Turkic tribe based in the northern Caucasus that is said to have converted en masse to Judaism over a thousand years ago. However, he took several important steps, including the rejection of Jesus. Despite the efforts of his friend Irving Block, a Conservative New York rabbi, Matthew was denied admission to the New York Board of Rabbis and B’nai B’rith, and the community remained separate from the world of white Jewry. Rabbi Sholomo Ben Levy, the current president of the more than half-century-old International Israelite Board of Rabbis—which Funnye says represents perhaps a third of all the Hebrew Israelites—recently wrote that since Matthew’s death in 1973, “there has been virtually no dialogue between white and black Jews in America.”
Funnye, who has a commanding presence and a deep, resonant voice, has made it his mission to jumpstart that dialogue. Born to a Methodist family, he flirted briefly with Islam and was initially drawn to Judaism by Chicago Rabbi Robert Devine of the House of Israel Congregation. Turned off by Devine’s beliefs that Africans were the real Israelites and that Jesus was the messiah, he soon discovered Rabbi Levi Ben Levy of the Israelite Rabbinical Academy—father of Sholomo—and after five years of study was ordained in 1985.
His initial forays into the American Jewish community were tepidly received. “The most anti-Semitism that I have faced has come from within the Jewish community,” he wrote in 2003. Funnye responded by redoubling his efforts, working hard and earnestly to prove his congregation’s legitimacy. Like many of those affiliated with the Israelite Rabbinical Academy—there are eight synagogues, seven in the U.S. and one in the Caribbean—he prefers the term “Jew” to “Israelite.” Funnye, who describe his congregation as “conservadox,” underwent a formal conversion to Judaism in 1985 and requires all of his congregants to do the same.
In 1997, Funnye broke new ground when he became an “associate” member of the Chicago Board of Rabbis. While his official title left something to be desired—it was created specifically for him—Funnye felt that he was on equal footing with his peers. Last year, shortly before Obama’s election, the word “associate” was quietly removed from Funnye’s title, just in time for him to burst onto the national scene.
In April, The New York Times Magazine profiled him, emphasizing his bridge-building prowess and desire to integrate the Hebrew Israelite community into the Jewish mainstream. “The media has done an excellent job,” Funnye jokes. “If we had tried to pay for the amount of media coverage that our congregation has received in the past couple of years, trust me, we wouldn’t have a building. We’d be standing outside.”
While “Christian Judaism” remains common among black Jewish synagogues, some have gradually aligned themselves with the larger American Jewish community. At the same time, that community has begun to embrace diversity in an unprecedented manner. “The doors are opening wider every day,” says Funnye. “There is a growing acceptance in the broader Jewish community for the black Jewish movement. The more that’s understood, the more the broader community sees that there’s no difference.” But Funnye’s success—he has at this point been almost universally recognized as a rabbi by liberal Jewish movements, as well as by many more traditional groups—has not yet been duplicated.