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.

Hillel Ontario Welcomes University of Toronto’s Anti-Semitism Working Group

Hillel Ontario Welcomes University of Toronto’s Anti-Semitism Working Group

Hillel Ontario welcomes University of Toronto’s recent launch of a new Anti-Semitism Working Group. The Working Group will review programming, activities, processes, and practices in place at the University of Toronto’s three campuses and develop recommendations to support the University’s response to antisemitism.

“The establishment of a working group focused on antisemitism is a much-needed measure for the University of Toronto,” said Rob Nagus, Senior Director, Hillel UofT. “Too often, Jewish students who have faced antisemitism on campus have felt that their serious concerns around anti-Jewish hate were dismissed. Given the positive impact of recent anti-racism initiatives on the campus community, it is incumbent on our institutions to also address the unique challenges inherent to combating antisemitism.”

“Across the nine campuses we serve, Hillel Ontario is committed to working with all university administrations to champion the voices of Jewish students,” said Marc Newburgh, CEO, Hillel Ontario. “We look forward to supporting the work of the University of Toronto by ensuring these voices are heard and acknowledged. Doing so will help the Working Group better understand how contemporary antisemitism manifests on campus.”

The Sukkot Wellness Challenge

The Sukkot Wellness Challenge

I love the holiday of Sukkot and look forward to it every year. While often overshadowed by the High Holy Days, I find that it offers us a chance to relax after the intensity of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. For a week, we are invited to enjoy the outdoors, to celebrate abundance, and to express gratitude (going back to the holiday’s roots as a celebration of a successful harvest season). 

Yet, accessing the joy, the gratitude, and the togetherness of Sukkot seemed almost impossible given the challenges posed by the pandemic, and the fact that we as a Hillel community remain scattered across the GTA (and beyond!), spending most of our days connecting only virtually. 

At the same time, perhaps the most important word of our season has been “wellness.” We, students and staff, have been particularly attuned to the need to care for our mental, physical, spiritual, and emotional wellbeing. To state the obvious, it’s a tough time. As a Hillel community, we knew we had to try to meet the moment. 

Students from York, Ryerson and UofT gathered to brainstorm together: What did they need most right now? What did their friends, classmates, and peers need? How could we find a way to both celebrate Sukkot and care for ourselves across virtual time and space? 

What emerged was Sukkot Wellness Week, a menu of experiences that spanned the week of Sukkot, offering multiple ways to mindfully care for ourselves and each other.

First, there was a daily instagram prompt, alternating between thoughtful and silly questions about Sukkot, inviting students to think about their favourite fall comfort foods, Sukkah decorations, and what special guests they would welcome into their metaphorical (or actual) Sukkah. 

Second, we offered a different experience each day, focused on a different area of wellness.

  • Spiritual: on Tuesday, students joined me in learning Jewish texts related to the deep connections between Sukkot and wellness.
  • Mental: on Wednesday, students hosted a Wellness Wednesday check-in, a preview of what we hope will be a regular fixture in our Hillel calendar. 
  • Physical: On Thursday, a student prepared a meditation to offer us a chance to breathe and to pay attention to how we were feeling in our bodies. 
  • Emotional: On Friday, a student led trivia and other games as a way to destress from the week. Much laughter ensued.

By design, there was something for everyone. More importantly, Sukkot Wellness Week set the stage for an ongoing conversation about how we care for our full selves, and how this is deeply grounded in what it means to live Jewishly. Our work is far from over, and while Sukkot only lasts a week, it’s themes can help power us through the year ahead. 

Rabbi Ariella Rosen, Senior Jewish Educator

X