Jews of Colour Ponder Racism – and Solutions

It was billed as an “Evening of Deep Listening” – a panel of Jews of colour, each with different perspectives on how to combat racism “with/in the Jewish community.”

The June 8 virtual event, presented by the Toronto Board of Rabbis and Jews of Colour Canada, came at an especially sensitive time given events in the United States surrounding the death of George Floyd and the revitalization of the Black Lives Matter movement.

“When I say Black lives matter, I’m talking about a basic sense of dignity and respect,” said panel moderator Emery Warner, who described himself as “a proud Jew and a proud Black man.”

Panelist Tyler Samuels, a student leader at the University of Toronto’s Hillel and a director of Jews of Colour Canada, confessed to feeling “immense sadness” during this time.

He said he has seen, for the past decade, young Black people being killed by police, with limited support, until now.

Panelist Tema Smith, a diversity advocate, writer, and Jewish community activist, said her stress is off the charts and that she has not been eating or sleeping well in recent days.

Rivka Campbell, co-founder of Jews of Colour Canada, said she usually thinks, “oh, here we go again” when it comes to police brutality, but “this time [it] felt different… it was like a dam broke.”

An Evening of Deep Listening

The conversation shifted to how mainstream Jewish society feels about non-white Jews.

Smith said white Jews tend to treat Jews of colour as “others,” with questions like “what brings you here?”

Campbell said she feels that sometimes, the questions may be innocent, but they still makes her and other Jews of colour feel “other-ed” every time they walk into a Jewish space and are asked what they are doing there.

Samuels said he feels uncomfortable when people ask about his presence in a Jewish space, and avoids those situations. “It’s emotional labour you don’t want.”

He continued: “At the end of the day, white Jews can present as white and no one will know they’re Jewish. But for Black Jews, we have to present ourselves as Jews to get respect from our community, but also we can’t change our skin colour.

[White Jews] don’t have the fear of being arrested by police for no reason… [White Jews] have white privilege. We need to recognize that. Black Jews have to defend ourselves. I don’t want that. I want a united front,” Samuels said.

Said Smith, “Jews and whiteness is not a simple history… Whiteness has shifted… There is a discomfort of feeling like we are being lumped with a group of people that have tried to kill us.”

Speakers noted the importance of Jewish diversity education, which they said needs a lot of work in order to build bridges between White Jews and Jews of colour.

The panel was co-presented by Hillel Ontario, UJA-Federation of Greater Toronto, the Downtown Jewish Community Council, Miles Nadal JCC, Schwartz-Reisman JCC, and Prosserman JCC.

– With files from Mara Bosloy