Chicago ó The ordination took place on a sun-drenched Sabbath, in a synagogue used many decades ago by Lithuanian Jews. But on June 23, it was 200 mostly black worshippers, many in brightly colored African dress, who were on their feet, eyes fixed on a procession of eight white-robed rabbis with ceremonial miters crowning their heads as they strode, single file, down the aisle separating the menís and womenís seating.
All were gathered at Beth Shalom Bínai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation to create a new rabbi for this small, passionate but scarcely known tradition of black Judaism.
Though it was mid-afternoon and the morning shacharit service was long finished, very few had left the sanctuary; the ordination of the new rabbi was the dayís big event. As a delegation of black Jews visiting from New York for the important occasion looked on, the rabbis mounted the bimah and, with the open ark as a backdrop, arranged themselves into a half circle and faced the congregation.
For many mainstream Jews, this is a ceremony that might seem alien. But today, the differences between them and these black Jews, who have long been ignored or dismissed as inauthentic by the Jewish establishment, seems more like one of culture and ethnicity than Jewish identity.
While they once called themselves Hebrew Israelites exclusively to distinguish themselves from Jews of European extraction, the black Jews now readily count themselves among the Jewish people without qualification. An increasing number seek out formal conversion, a practice previously seen only as a concession to the expectations of mainstream Jews. Some 85% of the members at Beth Shalom have done so, according to Rabbi Capers Funnye (pronounced Fun-NAY), their spiritual leader, who is himself a member of the mainstream Chicago Board of Rabbis (and cousin to First Lady Michelle Obama).