Capers Funnye Jr. was born in 1952 in Georgetown, South Carolina in the Low Country, with paternal ancestry among the GeeChee people of the Sea Islands. His family moved to Chicago as part of the continuing Great Migration of African Americans out of the South, and he grew up on the South Side.
Funnye is the first cousin once removed of Michelle Obama, the wife of 44th United States President Barack Obama. His mother Verdelle (Robinson) Funnye was a sister of Michelle's paternal grandfather Fraser Robinson Jr. He is 12 years older than Michelle. While their families frequently visited when they were young, the two of them got to know each other more as adults.
Funnye was raised in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and at 17, was encouraged by his minister to enter the clergy. Dissatisfied with Christianity during his time at Howard University and influenced by movements for civil rights and black nationalism, he investigated other religions, including Islam. After meeting with Rabbi Robert Devine, the spiritual leader of the House of Israel Congregation in Chicago, which practiced a kind of messianic Judaism, he joined his congregation. Related Black Jewish movements in the United States had started in the late 19th century in Kansas.
He became drawn to the "more conventional teachings of a black, Brooklyn-based rabbi named Levi Ben Levy, the chief rabbi of the International Israelite Board of Rabbis. This group has its roots in the Commandment Keepers Congregation of the Living God, founded in 1919 by Wentworth Arthur Matthew in Harlem. It incorporated in 1930 and later moved to Brooklyn, where Matthew established a seminary. After Matthew's death in 1973, there had been little dialog with white Jewish congregations, who disagreed with Black Jewish claims of historic descent from ancient Israel. Funnye studied long distance with Levy for five years, and Levy ordained him in 1985 through the Israelite Rabbinical Academy of Brooklyn, founded by Matthew. The Academy does not have ties to any mainstream Jewish denomination.
With the goal of building bridges to United States Judaism, Funnye underwent a second conversion to Judaism in 1985 that was certified by a Conservative rabbinical court. He also studied Judaism more intensively in Chicago, earning a Bachelor of Arts degree in Jewish Studies and Master of Science in Human Service Administration from the Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies in Chicago. Funnye has said that he felt a sense of intellectual and spiritual liberation in the constant examination that Judaism encouraged.
In 1985, Funnye was selected as assistant rabbi at Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation in Chicago; with 200 members, it is now one of the largest black synagogues in the United States. Its congregation is mostly African American. Funnye is the first African-American member of the Chicago Board of Rabbis, and serves on the boards of the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs and the American Jewish Congress of the Midwest. In 1996, Funnye was the only official black rabbi in the Chicago area recognized by the greater Jewish community.
Funnye was active in the Institute for Jewish and Community Research, reaching out to historically black Jewish communities outside the United States, such as the Beta Israel in Ethiopia, which are recognized by Israel, and the Igbo Jews in Nigeria.
Funnye's current congregation was founded by Rabbi Horace Hasan from Bombay (now Mumbai), India, in 1918 as the Ethiopian Hebrew Settlement Workers Association. Along with African Americans, members include Hispanics and whites who were born Jews, as well as former Christians and Muslims. As is traditional with Judaism, the congregation does not engage in missionary activity. Members who want to enter as converts must study Judaism for a year before undergoing a traditional conversion, requiring men to be ritually circumcised and women to undergo ritual immersion in a mikvah. The synagogue is "somewhere between Conservative and Modern Orthodox" with distinctive African-American influences; while men and women sit separately as in Orthodox synagogues, a chorus sings spirituals to the beat of a drum. The congregation occupies a synagogue built by an earlier Ashkenazi congregation in the Marquette Park neighborhood. Funnye says they have not applied to belong to any mainstream synagogue organizations, as they do not feel the need.
In 1995 Rabbi Funnye was a co-founder, with Michelle Stein-Evers of California and Robin Washington of Boston, Jewish editor of the African-American Bay State Banner, of the National Conference of Black Jews. They intend to broaden the conversation among black Jews and Black Hebrews across the country, as well as build bridges to conventional Judaism. Rabbi Funnye says, "I am a Jew, and that breaks through all color and ethnic barriers."
In October 2015, Rabbi Capers Funnye was installed as Chief Rabbi of the International Israelite Board of Rabbis. In August 2016, he was inaugurated to that position. The board is made up of "people who identify themselves as Black Jews or Israelites."