My Jewish Story

by | Oct 10, 2019 | Jewish Life at UofT | 0 comments

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.

My Hillel Highlights

My Hillel Highlights

My name is Joel Kahn, and I’m currently studying Engineering Science at UofT. I love being involved with Hillel and meeting other Jewish students on campus. My favourite experiences with Hillel this year have been attending the many events put together by my fellow Jewish students. Here are my top three:

1) Ultimate Pong Tournament

Going out to play some board games and attending a (non-alcoholic) “beer” pong competition at the Wolfond Centre was not only fun, but facilitated a lot of networking among the young Jewish UofT community. I will admit, though, that my friend Ryan and I lost in our very first round of the pong tournament, since we faced an excellent opponent. The hanging out over drinks while watching the finals was worth it as the competition subsequently heated up under a fantastic soundtrack by the DJ.

2) Out of Sync

Out of Sync was overall a very successful fundraiser! For those who don’t know, Out of Sync is an initiative to raise money for campus Hillels by encouraging the community to donate supporting students in an intercampus talent competition. This year, Hillel Ontario succeeded in raising over one hundred sixty thousand dollars to support local Hillels! I know I’ll be excited to see what new events I and other students manage to create with these vital funds, including supporting continuing events such as the Shabbat dinners hosted by Hillel every month.

3) Interfaith Shabbat Dinner

An Interfaith Shabbat dinner was put on earlier this semester, to which I brought some of my non-Jewish friends. Acting as co-table-leaders with my friend David, we were able to give others insight into our personal Jewish experiences, which many of the non-Jewish students sitting around the table hadn’t ever heard about. Many of my friends didn’t know about the traditions of Kiddush (blessing over the wine), washing our hands, and making a blessing over bread before starting our meal. Throughout dinner, we answered questions about keeping kosher, how Jewish traditions have changed from the times of the Temple in Jerusalem to today, and our favourite Jewish songs. Answering their questions and hosting conversations about what religion means to us was tremendously rewarding.

Coming up, my friend Ryan and I are planning a blood drive event for Hillel students to help those in need, currently planned for the end of March. People occasionally think about giving blood, but may be too busy or nervous to actually go out and give. We hope that a lot of people will sign up and help make this a success, so here I am early promoting it! If you choose to sign up for this event, I give my thanks. I’d also like to thank my selfless peers who have worked so hard to plan community events this year that have provided me so many good memories with my Jewish friends. I can’t wait to attend more exciting events this year!

What Hillel and Holocaust Education Week Mean to Me

What Hillel and Holocaust Education Week Mean to Me

Written By: Rachel Cohen

My name is Rachel Cohen and I’m a Hillel Student Leader in my fourth year of study at the University of Toronto. I’ve been involved with Hillel since I was in first year, and have loved being a part of their leadership structure. It’s given me the ability to take part in the planning processes of events such as Model Knesset with Israeli students, orientation week festivities and volunteering with other organizations, such as The House. Last year I hosted a panel discussion at Hart House entitled the Rise of White Supremacy and Hate Groups in Canada. It was a stellar evening, as we heard from five distinguished panelists and continued the interesting discussion, even after the event came to a close.

Planning educational talks has been one of my favourite parts of being involved in Hillel’s leadership structure. It promotes an open dialogue of difficult topics in a safe and dynamic environment. When Rabbi Julia Appel came to me at the beginning of this schoolyear with the idea of executing an event centred around Holocaust education, I was thrilled.

Over the course of three months this fall, the project took flight. The event was to be centred around Daniel Panneton, the Programs and Education Assistant at the Sarah & Chaim Neuberger Holocaust Education Centre and the curator of The Paradox: Free Speech and Holocaust Denial in Canada. As an emerging historian, Daniel planned to discuss, “Holocaust Denial in Post Truth Era.”

We recently observed the 39th Annual Holocaust Education Week at the beginning of November. This year the theme of Sarah & Chaim Neuberger Holocaust Education Centre’s week at the beginning of november was, “Here and Now.” Multidisciplinary programming throughout the GTA illuminated the relevance of Holocaust education to Canadians as we enter the third decade of the twenty-first century. It was both timely and necessary to have these discussions and to examine these atrocities.

We planned the event as part of an extended Holocaust Education Week to remember the six million Jews who perished. The event was personal to all of us—it was personal to me. In a reflection I wrote after the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, just over a year ago, I said this:

“I’m proud of my 95-year-old grandmother, Ruth Cohen, who sailed to North America in 1930 and created a new life in Montreal. I’m also proud of my family who remained in Radomsko, Poland. They died at the hands of the Nazis in Auschwitz-Birkenau. While my grandmother was lining up for primary school, my ancestors were lining up for the gas chambers.”

My grandmother left Poland long before the war, but her aunts and cousins stayed. As a descendent of victims of the Holocaust, I’m thankful to have a voice and platform such as Hillel, to honour their memory.

On November 19th, 2019, the event was held at the Wolfond Centre. Due to the time of year, students were stacked with assignments, so I was concerned (as always), about numbers, but the audience turnout was perfect. About fifty students, staff and community members attended the evening.

Holocaust memory is at a turning point. At a time when the last survivors are passing away, anti-Semitism and intolerance are rising at home and abroad. We face an anxious future without the presence of survivors to remind us of the past. So, throughout the event, we considered the questions:

  • How is Holocaust memory changing in this context?
  • What can we do to prevent the spread of hatred and Holocaust denial?
  • Seventy-five years later, why should Canadians, especially young Canadians, learn about the Holocaust? Two generations later, why does it still matter?

With the help of Hillel staff members and students, as well as my friends who are allies of the Jewish community on campus, the event went off without a hitch. Daniel’s presentation was both interesting and thought provoking, as it sparked a lively discussion over the dessert reception post-event.

In the aftermath, as the dust settled and newly appointed Senior Director, Rob Nagus and I cleaned up— I couldn’t help but think how lucky I am to have such great support from my peers and mentors on campus. While the event was based around educating others, I feel as though I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have learned so much in the process of designing these projects. This is knowledge that I will hold with me even after I (sadly) leave Hillel and the university this coming spring.

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