Jewish Life at UofT

My Jewish Story

My Jewish Story

By Tyler Samuels

My story is no different from many Jewish stories. However, there is one difference in my story. I am a Jew of Colour (JOC). You may wonder what makes that different from any other Jew. Or, you may think that divides us. Both are true in different ways.

As a JOC, I am a Jew but also a very visible minority. Being a black man in a world of Black Lives Matter and disproportionate police violence against us is challenging. Yet, as Jews, we require the police to protect our shuls and other Jewish-themed areas from antisemitism. Most Jews don’t think about it, but anytime I go to shul, or the JCC, or even Hillel I fear I will be stopped by police or security and asked what I’m doing there.

For those of us who have faced this situation, we sometimes avoid coming to these places out of fear of not being accepted. I know countless JOC who have stopped coming to Jewish spaces due to stares, snide comments, and feeling unwanted. I have always felt this way. On top of the antisemitism I have faced in my life, it seems impossible to remain Jewish!  I had a rabbi tell me that one couldn’t be Black and Jewish; I would have to pick one and stick with it. I have been called Kushi. Someone asked me if I was Ethiopian, and when told no, proceeded to ask “Then how are you Jewish?”. These experiences have made me stronger–toughened the proverbial skin, but like daggers, they sting and hurt with each stab wound. We must do better if we want to bring more equality.

One of my favorite Biblical passages is Deuteronomy 16:19-20: “You shall not pervert judgment; you shall not respect persons, nor take a bribe; for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise, and perverts the words of the righteous. Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may live, and inherit the land which the Lord your God gives you.”

“Justice, justice shall you pursue” is something I take seriously, and is a line I believe all Jews should take seriously. How can we preach equality but not spread that equality to our fellow Jews that are marginalized? When Jews of Colour get asked “How did you become Jewish?” or are asked at a shul event to get the garbage can, because other Jews think we’re the custodian, we are not achieving this ideal.

I want to acknowledge that some JOC will never face this type of discrimination and have only positive stories; these stories should not be ignored or discounted. I hope for a time when Jews of Colour know that there is a future for us within the Jewish community, that we will find beloved community. For white-passing Jews, I hope these stories teach how to treat Jews that are not like them–who are different and proud to be different. I would much rather fight antisemitism with my community than fight fellow Jews to accept me as any other Jew.

I am proud to be a Jew, and nothing will change that. I can face slurs by other Jews; I can face not being accepted; I can face all of that. However, others cannot, and we lose them. We lose them because we fail to adapt, we lose them because we fail to accept, and we lose them because we lack empathy for the heartbreaking experiences of many Jews of Colour. I have been angry for a long time at the Jewish community, angry because I sought acceptance that would prove my Jewishness to everyone. But I know who I am and what I am, And that is my story.

Tyler Samuels is a Jamaican Jew and a student at the University of Toronto Scarborough studying Political Science and History.

Interested in connecting with fellow Jews of Colour? Hillel is starting a Jews of Colour group. Contact Rabbi Julia for more information.

Meet Eliana Benia, Hillel UofT Student Leader

Meet Eliana Benia, Hillel UofT Student Leader

Written by Eliana Benia, Hillel Student Leader 

My name is Eliana and I am thrilled to be a Hillel student leader for the 2019/20 school year! In addition to kosher dinners, snacks and free printing, Hillel provides a welcoming and inclusive environment for everyone who walks through its doors. It is a place to come and relax, hang out, meet new friends and interact with like-minded individuals who all have a common interest in belonging to a Jewish community on campus. As one of 88,000 students at UofT and one of the very few Jews in the Kinesiology program, coming to Hillel feels like my “home away from home”. I am so grateful to all the staff (shout out to Ariel, Rabbi Julia and Einav!) at Hillel for everything they do to provide students with a Jewish campus experience.

One of the roles of Hillel student leaders is to plan and execute programs or events during the year. Something that I really want to do this year is organize a Shabbat dinner off campus. This will allow the observant students who cannot commute on Shabbat to be able to participate and give everyone else a different type of Shabbat experience. Something else that I would like to see happening is a Hillel UofT ski/snowboarding trip.

With Rosh Hashanah just around the corner, I would like to share with you a short thought. The month of Elul (the month leading up to Rosh Hashana) is a time to prepare yourself spiritually for the days of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and the year ahead. During this time, we have to self-reflect and ask ourselves who we are and what do we want to become? Rabbi Ari Bensousan (check out Meaningful Minute), explains that in order to accomplish this we have to dream. We need to envision ourselves as being the friend, brother, sister, spouse, parent etc. that we want to be. We have to dream big and by doing that we will realize what obstacles and challenges are standing in the way. For example, if your goal is to work on becoming more compassionate, picture yourself in a specific situation where you react in a compassionate and loving way.

Rabbi Tzvi Sytner (of The Village Shul) explains that just like a blank canvas or an empty field has the potential to turn into anything, so too, human beings have the ability to grow into whatever we wish to be. As Rabbi Sytner expressed, “If you define yourself by what you’re not, then that is all you will ever be. However, if you define yourself on who you are, then who knows what you will become.” Rosh Hashanah is the day to celebrate the creation of human beings and our potential. Recognize what you are already. Focus on your strengths and what you can accomplish, rather than focusing on your shortcomings and limitations. Decide who you want to be and make that happen by taking small steps. To conclude with a quote from Rabbi Eytan Feiner; “In Elul you have the chance to redefine yourself. Hashem doesn’t look at who you were, but rather who you are today.” You all have the ability and potential to change — but will you?

I wish everyone a meaningful Rosh Hashana and a successful year ahead. I look forward to seeing you all at Hillel!

Shana Tova!

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