We Celebrate Black History Month 2009
Live in NYC:
Gospel Music with Obama’s Cousin
In observance of Martin Luther King Day, Rabbi Capers Funnye, Jr., an African-American who converted to Judaism, stopped to speak at the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in New York City. Hours later, the rabbi, who is Michelle Obama’s first cousin, once-removed, was whisked off to President Obama’s inauguration. Rabbi Funnye, Jr., spoke of both Martin Luther King and of his hopes for the Obama administration from his unique combined perspectives as an Obama family member, a Jewish religious leader and a prominent African American. The spiritual leader of Chicago’s Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation, he is the first African-American Rabbi to be admitted to the Chicago Board of Rabbis, and served on the boards of the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, the American Jewish Congress of the Midwest and the Du Sable Museum of African American History.
The Stephen Wise Free Synagogue was a most appropriate forum. Rabbi Wise was one of the signers of the 1909 Lincoln’s Birthday Call presaging the formation of the NAACP. Remarkably contemporary The Call sounds “We call upon all the believers in democracy to join in a national conference for … the renewal of the struggle for civil and political liberty.” Continually heeding the Call, Rabbi Wise hosted the young Martin Luther King, Jr., who delivered a sermon from the synagogue pulpit in 1957.
On this Martin Luther King Day, over 500 people braved the freezing night wind to attend a “Kosher Gospel Extravaganza”. The concert featured Grammy winning singer Cissy Houston who performed classics like “Abraham, Martin and John.” The musical centerpiece was Joshua Nelson, a Jewish black gospel singer and pianist. He, his band and guest trumpeter Frank London of the Grammy winning Klezmatics performed two sets of music based on the old Testament (kosher) and backed up Ms. Houston.
Cantor Singer said “The aim was to observe Martin Luther King Day in a ‘symphony of brotherhood, but also to recognize that work remains to be done. Joshua Nelson has a way of drawing people of diverse backgrounds together. We hope to have an ongoing dialogue with the Muslim community and the Obama inauguration was a poignant and perfect time for our congregants and those outside to be together in our sanctuary in a joyous way.”
Between sets of music, Haim Handwerker, Israeli reporter for the Ha’aretz, interviewed Rabbi Capers Funnye, Jr. who explained “Michelle Obama’s grandfather and my mother were brother and sister. However, Michelle’s dad and my mom were like brother and sister; they were close in age.” He says education is of “paramount” importance to his entire family, mentioning that Malia and Sasha were not excused from their homework on election night.
“Obama will fulfill the dream,” he said “The dream of unequivocal equality, of religious tolerance for ‘the other’ is on the way to being fulfilled. As a black Jew, I often feel like ‘the other.’” He elaborated that although he knows the shema [Hebrew prayer] and wears a talit [Prayer Shawl] and kippah [Jewish head covering] he is still often asked “Are you a Jew?”
“Peace comes from talking. We have to build many bridges. I have hope when I speak to Jews and Muslims, that America can bring peace to spaces where there is divisiveness.”
Gospel singers from the Chicago synagogue came with Rabbi Funnye dressed in traditional African colorful garb; they stood, swayed and clapped, singing many of the traditional Hebrew songs as well as spirituals; soon, hundreds of people in the entire congregation stood and similarly swayed and clapped. At the end, the entire congregation held hands and sang with one voice.#