BRJCC multicultural fest shows new face of Judaism

"It doesn't matter what road we took to our Jewish identities," said Funnye after a foot-stomping version of "Hinei Ma Tov," "because kaballistically, we were all there at Mount Sinai. Judaism is open to all of us, and all we have to do is look around this room to see that."

Funnye, who heads Chicago's Beth Shalom B'Nai Zaken Hebrew Ethiopian Congregation, delivered the introductory remarks at the "Multiracial Shavuot Festival" at the JCC in Berkeley. Shavuot, which commemorates the giving of the Torah at Sinai, actually begins Thursday at sundown.

The Chicago spiritual leader later commented to a reporter on the "anomaly" of being an African-American rabbi.

"When I pray in other synagogues, davening alongside other congregants and wearing tefillin and a yarmulke, people will often ask me if I'm Jewish. Usually what I tell them is that I just found these things outside, and wanted to see how they work," he said, laughing.

Funnye also discussed the more serious issue of convincing both Jews and non-Jews that skin color isn't a prerequisite for Jewish identity.

"The media continually feeds the view that Jews are Ashkenazi, when the reality is that there are Jews of African descent both in the Unites States and in the Caribbean who have been cleaving to Judaism for years.

"In fact, I don't feel that 'conversion' to Judaism is an entirely relevant term. I prefer 'reversion' because many Africans had Jewish roots before the experience of slavery," said Funnye, who was ordained as a rabbi in 1985.

Anyone looking for further evidence of the diversity of Jewish identity at the BRJCC, one of the sponsors of the event, need only have looked at the event's workshops and publications. There were children's book such as "I'm Brown and My Sister Isn't," "Jalapeño Bagels," "My Secret Camera — Life in the Lodz Ghetto," and even a few copies of "Nothing Wrong With a Three-Legged Dog."

In addition, Camp Tawonga, another sponsor, presented a photo exhibit on multicultural families at the BRJCC in conjunction with "A Jewish Weekend for Multicultural and Multiracial Families," which will take place at the camp Oct. 4 to 6.

Workshops included classes on transracial adoption, Shavuot texts and traditions, and African-, Asian- and Latino-Jewish art. But some of the learning that took place didn't require the use of a classroom, as a few members of the Jewish African American Youth Association proved during a break between workshops.

"I was surprised how much similarity there is with Jewish culture and other cultures," said Rey Estevez, 15. "Before [joining JAAYA], I thought that Jews were all part of the economic elite, and now I know that Jews come from many different cultures and with a lot of different viewpoints."

Siduri Haslerig, 17, added that she joined JAAYA because it was important "to open everyone's minds."

"Besides," said the biracial non-Jewish teen, "all of my friends are Jewish, so I'm really familiar with Jewish identity and customs."

The impetus for Sunday's event was underscored by Gary Tobin, director of the Institute for Jewish & Community Research in San Francisco. The institute, a co-sponsor of the event, has just finished a study finding that 15 percent of Bay Area Jewish households identify in some way as Asian, black or Latino.

"The unfortunate reality is that, although there is an injunction to welcome strangers in the Bible, the reverse is often true in the mainstream Jewish community," said Tobin. "Many groups in the 'organized' community are not as warm and welcoming as they think they are.

"Therefore, this study and this event really should be seen as a prelude to community-building," Tobin added. "The hope is that the Bay Area, and the Jewish community in particular, will be a safe haven for people of all diverse backgrounds to come together."