African Americans are gaining a more prominent place in American Judaism, both as a group and as individual converts.
The Denver-based Rocky Mountain News (Feb. 22) reports that a Denver resident, Alysa Stanton, is the first black woman to be accepted in a major rabbinical program in the U.S., according to officials at the Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles (which belongs to Reform Judaism). “She converted to Judaism 16 years ago and chants the Torah at local synagogues.”
There are also modern groups of “Black Jews” who claim a Jewish faith or heritage while not being accepted as such by mainstream Jewish organizations. However, Black Jews are slowly gaining acceptance in the mainstream Jewish community. The Journal Star (Feb. 23) of Peoria reports on one such group, Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation, in Chicago. The sixth rabbi of Beth Shalom, Rabbi Caper Funnye, is the first of the congregation’s rabbis to be a member of the Chicago Board of Rabbis.
He had himself undergone a conversion under Conservative and Orthodox auspices. In the view of the Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation, people of African descent who join Judaism are actually “reverting” to their ancestral traditions. While Rabbi Funnye and other Black Jews claim there might be more than 200,000 Black Jews in the United States, more conservative estimates put those numbers at about 50,000, although there is no way to know exactly, since it involves the problem of defining the boundaries of Judaism.
— By Jean-Francois Mayer, an RW Contributing Editor who recently founded Religioscope (http://www.religioscope.com), a website providing information and resources on religion.