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.

Prioritizing Mental Health

Prioritizing Mental Health

Written by Netta Halevy

My name is Netta Halevy, I am currently a Life Science student at the University of Toronto. I am so excited to be a Hillel Student Leader this year and can’t wait for all the amazing events and opportunities this year will bring. With midterms coming to an end and exams quickly approaching I know how easy it is to become overwhelmed with all the schoolwork and extra curriculars, however it is vital to remember to prioritize yourself and your mental health. U of T has a lot of resources to talk to someone if you’re feeling anxious or overwhelmed. I know that is often difficult to make the decision whether to study for an extra hour or go and talk to someone about mental health. What if you could do both in the same building?

On December 4th, 2019 Hillel U of T will host a day long Study Jam filled with opportunities to work productively, talk openly about mental health, meet new people, and play with dogs. Whether you’re a silent studier or like to discuss your work, there will be rooms in accordance to your preference that you can choose. There will be notebooks, pens and whiteboards available for you in order to fit your study requirements as needed. There will be plenty of food, snacks, and drinks so you can remain as comfortable as possible while still working efficiently. There will also be blankets available so you can remain as comfortable as possible while working.

Hillel will be hosting group counselling sessions at two different times so that as many students that would like to attend will have the opportunity to do so. You can also come talk to our therapists who will facilitate and lead group discussions about mental health. Therapy dogs will also be coming to Hillel to relieve any stress or anxieties you might be feeling from studying all day. If you’re looking to take a group study break there will also be board games and puzzles to give yourself a break from studying but still be actively using your brain.

Come out and meet people, discuss what you’re studying, do your readings, play with some cute dogs and enjoy some snacks. How you choose to spend this event is completely up to you! All in all, I planned this event because I understand firsthand how stressful exam time can be. Hillel wants everyone to know that they are supported and cared for. I can’t wait to see you there!

Kosher Forward for 5780

Kosher Forward for 5780

Written By: Chaim Grafstein

The fall Jewish holidays are always a conflicting time for me on campus. Sometimes professors and staff can be very accommodating; sometimes they can miss the mark a little. Today, I wanted to highlight one positive moment from all the challenges and connect it to a project I am working on this year.

I’m in my third year of my Ph.D., so that means I can finally get some time away from course work for credit, but I found myself auditing a couple classes, nonetheless. The past two years have been a bit of a struggle to get through September and October, but this year, there was an unexpected breath of fresh air. It was the day after Yom Kippur, and I was trying to juggle a grant proposal, my research, and the classes I am auditing. I was sitting in class a few minutes before it started, stressed and frantically checking my email.  In the midst of this, my prof, who is not Jewish, walked in and asked me how Yom Kippur went, and suddenly I was surprised, relieved, and grateful all at once. It might sound like something small, but considering all the hoops I’ve had to jump through over the years, it was pretty great to feel like there was a prof who actually took into consideration my religious anxieties in addition to all the academic ones.

I’ve been on university campuses for a pretty long time, and I’ve faced a lot of challenges around being a Jew, from being told as an undergrad that I can’t join the Middle East Student Association because “[Jews] already have a club” at UofT (AKA: Hillel) to being constantly asked “is Kosher-style okay?” as a well-meaning attempt at accommodation. So, yes, a non-Jewish professor pro-actively asking about my holiday, knowing for sure it was a fast day, feels like a world of difference. He even followed up that he was using a calendar with all religious holidays to be extra accommodating in general!

This experience connects to the kosher food campaign, Kosher Forward, which I am leading along with Sophia Freudenstein. The University of Toronto dining services provides for vegan, gluten-free, Halal, and many other food needs. However, there is no Kosher food on campus. We are asking the University President to develop solutions to provide kosher food for students at UofT. Not everyone on campus is like this prof who went out of their way to be accommodating to me, but not everyone is trying to be difficult either – it’s mostly a challenge of folks just not knowing enough. I attended a dinner at the multi-faith centre a couple weeks back, and in speaking to some students from different religious groups on campus, most people just don’t know much about what Jewish life is like on campus. One of my peers even guessed that there had to be around 10,000 Jews in undergrad at UofT! When I explained that there were likely closer to 1000-1500, they were shocked, after all, they had around 1000 members in their campus group!

The Kosher Forward campaign stirs up a lot of hope for Jewish students at UofT. Every bit of accessibility we gain will be one less challenge to face on campus as a Jewish student. I’m hoping that this is just one step forward in building a better Jewish communal life on campus in the new year!

Mo‘adim LeSimcḥa!

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