By Anthony Weis
While Barack Obama struggled to capture Jewish votes, it turned out that one of his wife’s cousins is the country’s most prominent black rabbi.
Michelle Obama, wife of the Democratic presidential nominee, is a first cousin once removed of Rabbi Capers Funnye, spiritual leader of a mostly black synagogue on Chicago’s South Side. Funnye’s mother, Verdelle Robinson Funnye, and Michelle Obama’s paternal grandfather, Frasier Robinson Jr., were brother and sister.
Funnye (pronounced fuh-NAY) is the chief rabbi of 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 the Jewish community. On the one hand, Jewish political organizers, voters and donors — including some of the city’s wealthiest and most prominent families — played an essential role in Obama’s rise to power in Chicago. 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.
Funnye, who describes himself as an independent, said he has not been involved with the Obama campaign. But he did donate money, and he was cheering Obama 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.
Funnye, 56, has known Michelle Obama (born Michelle Robinson), 44, since she was born. Both grew up on the South Side of Chicago, and Funnye’s mother and Obama’s father enjoyed a close relationship.
“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.”